On the heels of county-imposed COVID-19 restrictions being lifted, Butte-Silver Bow commissioners are looking to restore in-person council meetings before the public — possibly starting April 7.
Decisions and details on the date and other plans are still tentative, and more input is being sought from commissioners and other county officials and staff who participate in meetings and make them possible.
But Council Chairwoman Cindi Shaw says virtual meetings are not the same as gathering in person — not for commissioners and not for the public — so the goal is to do the latter once again.
“It will happen, it’s just a matter of when,” Shaw said Thursday.
She told commissioners during their remote meeting Wednesday night that she was discussing the possibility with Council Vice Chairman Shawn Fredrickson, Chief Executive J.P. Gallagher, County Attorney Eileen Joyce and Clerk and Recorder Linda Sajor.
More feedback would be sought before plans are set, she said, but noted that Gallagher and Health Officer Karen Sullivan announced Tuesday all county-imposed COVID restrictions were being lifted, including a mask mandate.
Although masks are no longer required in county buildings, Gallagher said they would still be encouraged.
Shaw said under tentative plans being discussed, it’s likely commissioners, at least for a while, will still wear masks during resumed meetings in council chambers. And although the public would be encouraged to wear them, they won’t be required, she said.
There might be other precautions taken but those have not yet been determined.
Commissioners have been meeting virtually since the pandemic hit a year ago this month, appearing by computer in separate locations — mostly their homes. The county attorney and many department chiefs also take part, each getting a small square on the computer screen.
The meetings are live-streamed, just as in-person meetings at the courthouse were, but citizens who want to speak can only do so by calling in or sending advance letters or emails that are read into the record.
Commissioners have complimented IT staff for making the remote meetings possible and dealing with technical challenges as they come up, but audio, video and other technical problems are inevitable in the virtual world and have occurred often.
But those aren’t the only drawbacks. There are missing elements, too.
“To me, it’s the eye contact and being able to see the body language that all of us human beings depend on,” Shaw said Thursday.
If in-person meetings are resumed April 7 or soon after, she said, citizens will still be able to call in with comments if they aren’t comfortable attending — at least for a while. And meetings in chambers will still be livestreamed as they were before the pandemic.
But Shaw does not favor hybrid setups for commissioners, where some attend in person and some remotely.
“My goal is to have it done all or nothing,” she said.