As pandemic measures loosen across the country, several Payson residents have asked if the council can loosen restrictions and let the public attend council meetings once again.
But the town isn’t ready to return to the way it was.
“The Town of Payson is still under a state of emergency,” said Payson Fire Chief David Staub, reminding the council the pandemic is not over.
During the April 22 council meeting, Staub presented a report that explained the current state of the pandemic and what the town would consider in order to keep the council, staff and public safe, while allowing for more in person public comments during meetings. Staub has served as the incident commander on the town’s response to the pandemic.
Although the rate of infection has seriously slowed, the virus still circulates with new cases popping up each week.
In order to keep social distancing measures, Staub calculated the council chamber can safely hold 15 people, which “would include staff as well.”
To illustrate how quickly the chambers filled, he counted 13 at the April 22 meeting.
“So, getting some options, understand whatever we do, these meeting have an IT (internet technology) component,” he said.
The town has been opened up to public comments for months. The current process requires the public to either call in over Zoom during the meeting or have their written comments read by a staff member.
Staub suggested that the town could continue with the current system or move the public into the council chambers and the council and staff move to another room, move everyone offsite to a larger venue or have the public offsite while the staff and council remain in chambers.
One suggestion is to use the library, said Staub.
For that option, the public would remain in the library, while the council and staff would stay in council chambers.
Councilor Jim Ferris asked if there could be another option “open it as we did prior to COVID.”
“With all the vaccinations, if we are close to approaching herd immunity… they can come join the meeting,” he said.
With vaccination rates slowing not only in Gila County but around the country, experts do not believe the country will reach herd immunity soon. This leaves organizations on their own to figure out how to live with a virus that has already killed more people around the world than the 1918 pandemic – and with the variants, it’s far from over.
Vice Mayor Chris Higgins preferred the library option, even after the pandemic.
“When we are packed here and people are in the hallway, I know people have been uncomfortable,” he said.
This option would prove challenging for the technology department, as people want the feel of being present in the council chambers, seeing what the council saw. Staub admitted the town has heard complaints that the public can’t see the same presentations the council sees over the Zoom connection.
“Conceptually, it is a live stream,” he said.
Police Chief Ron Tischer added that whatever the decision, police would need to have a presence at meetings.
“Wherever the public’s going to be… we will have an officer there,” he said.
Town Manager Troy Smith explained even if the council moved the public to the library, it would require time as the new meeting room needs “some reconstruction to comply with the code.”
The council made no decision on opening meetings to the public. Staff said they would look into the library option.