The spike in COVID-19 cases in Spokane County will delay the return of in-person Spokane City Council meetings at least several weeks.
The Spokane City Council had eyed Aug. 16 for a return to in-person meetings.
Council members agreed Thursday to push back the potential in-person reopening until at least Sept. 17, citing the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Spokane County caused by the delta variant.
“The last two days have kind of shaken me in terms of public health, and the last thing I want to do is be a part of spreading this disease to people,” said City Council President Breean Beggs.
Although many empathized with citizens who prefer to attend in person, council members offered varying opinions on whether they felt safe holding such meetings and whether members of the public should be forced to wear masks regardless of whether they have been vaccinated.
The council asked the Spokane Regional Health District for guidance this week.
Citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, interim Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Frank Velazquez wrote in an email to Beggs on Thursday that all council members and attendees should wear masks, “especially since physical distancing and capacity restrictions are no longer in place.”
Velazquez also participated in Thursday’s council meeting and described the rapid transmissibility of the delta variant compared to its predecessors. In addition to reported new cases, he said the number of hospitalizations and people requiring intensive care has risen, almost entirely among the unvaccinated. They are “the highest numbers that we have seen since about February of this year, just to give you some perspective,” he said.
With those trends in mind, Councilwoman Kate Burke said she’s heading back into quarantine.
“I’m just not interested in having in-person meetings and doing all this stuff like it’s gone away,” Burke said.
Instead of requiring everyone to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status, Councilman Michael Cathcart suggested the city could dip into its American Rescue Plan funds to purchase KN95 masks, which offer a higher level of protection than the alternatives, for those who wish to use one.
“Then we can still lead by example and show that if you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to comply with a lot of these rules,” Cathcart said.
Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said she would not be comfortable on the dais in front of an unmasked audience, while Councilwoman Karen Stratton said a security plan should be in place should a person refuse to don one.
City Hall reopened to employees last week, but the council can set its own rules for its meetings. The city is not requiring its vaccinated employees to wear a mask, but Beggs said he would ask the administration to revise that policy to align with new CDC recommendations.
Previously, the council had faced a conundrum because it did not have the technology to allow City Council members to participate in an in-person meeting remotely through WebEx. That issue has been resolved, Beggs said.