County leaders close council office building to public to lessen coronavirus risk
Announcement comes after debate on how to handle public meetings
The Montgomery County Council office building will be closed to the public beginning Monday.
Photo by Briana Adhikusuma
The Montgomery County Council office building will be closed to the public starting Monday, as government officials navigate the risks of coronavirus.
In a press release Friday, Council President Sidney Katz said the county’s health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles, recommended that no public access to the building be allowed between Monday and March 27.
Exceptions will be made for media outlets, county government employees and members of “outside agencies.” Katz cited similar policies implemented by the Maryland General Assembly and the U.S. Congress.
Community members who signed up to testify at the public hearings on March 17 and 24 will be individually contacted and asked to submit their testimony through email or a testimony collection box outside the building by 9 a.m. on Tuesday.
Earlier on Friday, council members debated for nearly two hours how to handle public meetings and hearings while coronavirus is a concern.
One idea was prohibiting the public from attending meetings. Instead, they could submit written comment in a box outside of the building or through email.
Some council members felt that bringing the public into the building for hearings would further risk the spread of the coronavirus. They suggested allowing the public to participate by sending testimony through email or watching the live video feed of the meeting.
Another suggestion was to have staff members read aloud testimony from the public.
Council Member Will Jawando said the council should continue doing its business while taking precautions, such as limiting meetings outside the council building, using hand sanitizer and postponing nonessential meetings.
“If the Ride-On bus drivers are driving, we should be here conducting government. … I think we should be doing our business that we would normally do,” he said. “I think that’s our job.”
But Council Member Nancy Navarro said the situation was not “business as usual.” She called for restrictions on public access to the building and fewer in-person meetings for the council. Council members will need to protect their own health, too, she said.
“I think that at least for the next three weeks, which is what the school systems are doing [in closing], we should try to find a way to triage our work, do what’s absolutely essential, but model the behavior of social distancing until we understand, what is this [spread] rate? How is this propagating?” she said.
Council Member Andrew Friedson agreed that the meetings and hearings should continue to be live-streamed and recorded, but closed to public attendance.
The council agreed that discussions and public hearings of the county’s capital and operating budgets, which the council is supposed to get on Monday, should continue. All nonessential meetings scheduled before March 27 will be postponed.
Jawando said public hearings should continue to be open to the public to attend in person. Some people can’t access the internet to submit public comments through email, especially since the county libraries and recreation centers — which offer free access — will be closed starting Monday, he said.
“I worry about saying, ‘No one in at all,’” he said. The council should get an opinion from a medical expert for how to handle this, he said.
Council Member Hans Riemer was in favor of having people email testimony and having a staff member read it aloud, even if the public is allowed in the building.
“I think that’s a fictitious concern that there are people who cannot submit [testimony] electronically,” he said. “I can’t think of a person who has testified who also doesn’t email us.”
“That’s not fictitious,” Jawando said.
Friedson said a drop-off box should be provided for written public comment testimony.
“We’re limiting presence, not participation,” he said. “That’s the key message that we need to send.”
Riemer suggested presenting the options to Gayles for a medical opinion of which would be the best option. The coronavirus will most likely be a concern for months, Riemer said.
“I don’t think that we should interpret what the school closings should mean on our own,” Riemer said. “If we’re reacting to trying to do something that seems to be at the same scale as the schools closing for our own business, we might be making a mistake. I think that we should do what our public health experts tell us.”
On Monday, council members will receive training on using Skype, a digital platform for video calls, but it was not clear how it would be used.
Katz said the platform could be used for future meetings once it is available for members and essential staff on March 24. A county staff member attending the meeting said that it would have to be further discussed to avoid violating open meeting laws.
In the meantime, council members agreed to postpone all nonessential committee meetings until March 24.
The budget might also need to change based on impacts of the coronavirus, Riemer said.
Katz said it would be affected by less money coming from hotel-motel taxes.
“This is a time when the government will have less money … and we’re going to have people that need us more than they’ve ever needed us,” he said.
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at email@example.com.