During their June 1 work session, several council members expressed a desire to return to the City Hall council chambers in some form following their summer recess in late July. It remains to be seen whether the full council contingent will be present at Austin's first in-person meetings this year, and if they would be joined at City Hall by staff and members of the public.
Among council members who spoke June 1, most shared a preference for resuming in-person meetings this summer and in doing away with protective measures such as plexiglass partitions placed between officials. The concept of physically spacing out around half of the group on the dais in person with the remaining members appearing virtually from their offices was also floated as an initial way to maintain a limit on meeting participants.
The question of requiring masks or vaccinations for members of the public at meetings this summer also remains. While no decision was made June 1, District 10 Council Member Alison Alter said she would prefer to see some limits on outside attendance if city residents are also permitted in person.
“I’m not sure that I would be comfortable with a full capacity, with the room being able to be filled to the same capacity for the safety of the staff ... and possibly requiring masks of folks who aren’t on the dais since we have no mechanism of assuring vaccination," she said.
Under current emergency regulations, city residents are able to continue providing testimony remotely via audio alone. If those statewide rules were to be eased, however, anyone wishing to speak at a council meeting remotely would be required to appear via both audio and video. The city would also have to facilitate those remote calls itself at locations such as libraries, a process City Clerk Jannette Goodall said would be logistically difficult and potentially unfeasible by late July given the equipment needed.
"My recommendation would be, as long as we can do audio we can easily do a hybrid, in-person and audio testimony. If the exemptions go away, then my recommendation would be that we go to in-person testimony only, and then we can work with building services and building security to manage the flow of people into chambers so that we can accommodate everyone and still allow them to be safe," Goodall said.
Staff members are also comfortable with a return to in-person council meetings, Goodall said, and could be "staged" throughout City Hall before appearing in the council chambers during relevant briefings and discussions to keep capacity low.
Some officials also shared feedback from residents commenting on the relative ease of meeting participation with an audio-only option in place and more specific times identified to speak on certain topics, pandemic-era considerations that could continue or be adjusted later this year to remain in some form.
“I like how we’ve been a little bit more able to just kind of set the meetings to work efficiently. I’ve always been bothered when we have meetings that go really late because I think that unfortunately limits peoples’ ability to be able to participate," Mayor Steve Adler said.
Goodall said she plans to connect with council members individually to assess their preferences on an in-person return and other capacity and safety considerations this month. Council's last meeting before its summer recess is scheduled for June 10, and while some virtual budget preview activity is planned throughout July, the body is not officially scheduled to meet again until a July 27 work session and July 29 regular meeting when new practices may be in place.