Whether we like it or not, COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the ways we work and gather. While there is no substitute for being in the same room as family, friends, and colleagues, for the past 18 months, this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic has taught us how to come together virtually and get things done.
Most of us had never even heard of Zoom before offices started closing, but it and other platforms like Webex and Microsoft Teams have become part of our daily lives as we adjusted to this new virtual world. Most of us probably know the feeling of “zoom fatigue,” a whole new way to be tired!
This past spring and early summer, as COVID-19 positivity rates declined and more and more of us got vaccinated, New Yorkers became more comfortable returning to our pre-pandemic rituals. We are now eating inside at restaurants, attending indoor events, and more recently, hosting in-person meetings to conduct important business before the City of New York.
When we adopted the new city budget at the end of June, we were able to meet inside City Council chambers with our colleagues for the vote. It was the first time in over a year that we finally gathered in person, and it was a relief to celebrate together the passage of a budget that restored pandemic cuts and made meaningful investments in our communities to help boost and focus the recovery.
Unfortunately, we may be done with the virus, but the virus is not done with us. Driven by the recent, rapid spread of the Delta variant, New York City’s COVID-19 positivity rate is hovering near 4%, all five New York City boroughs (counties) are experiencing high community transmission rates per the CDC, and hospitalizations are on the rise. In the current context, we are concerned about the safety of city government officials, civic leaders, and the general public attending in-person meetings.
Since the Governor lifted the emergency Executive Order, New York State law requires that all meetings of public bodies, including Stated meetings of the full New York City Council and committee meetings, must be held in person and remote meetings are no longer allowed. This will affect a high number of volunteer civic institutions that reconvene annually in September, including borough boards, community boards, precinct community councils, and others. Given the severity of the Delta variant, we strongly recommend providing a remote option for these public meetings.
It would be irresponsible to force community members, volunteers, and public servants alike to provide their input, which we need to govern effectively, in person, without a remote option. Indeed, a lack of remote meeting options will also present a special, inequitable, and frankly unacceptable barrier to immunocompromised New Yorkers.
Over the past 18 months, remote meetings not only allowed us to continue our work at the horrific heights of the pandemic, but they opened the door for more civic participation. This was a most welcome side effect of the new virtual reality that we could not have predicted. Indeed, in the time of COVID-19, we have seen a marked increase in public participation and enthusiasm for legislative and budgetary matters affecting the lives of all New Yorkers. To build on this passion, and to prioritize safety, we must fully integrate remote options like Zoom into city government meetings moving forward even after COVID-19 is finally vanquished.
With fall fast approaching, New York State must take swift action to ensure safe maximum participation at public meetings. We may be growing tired of virtual meetings, but they have become an essential lifeline for us to continue our work while keeping ourselves, our families, and our communities safe. Let’s take the lessons learned over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and preserve this crucial option.