Government as usual is now being affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Several governing bodies in the New River and Roanoke valleys either canceled their regularly scheduled meetings this week or they will happen under special conditions.
Montgomery County has decided to cancel both of its board of supervisor meetings scheduled for Monday and Tuesday nights this week. Monday night’s meeting was going to be a special work session to go over the proposed budget, while Tuesday’s was set to be the annual joint meeting with the school board.
Meanwhile, the Blacksburg Town Council is going ahead with its meeting — but is asking the public not to attend.
And in Roanoke on Monday, the city council held its regular 2 p.m. meeting, but, in adherence to social distancing recommendations, changed its seating arrangement. Instead of all seven members sitting elbow to elbow on the dais, they left every other chair open, and two members sat at a table on the floor in front of the dais.
Councilwoman Anita Price, whose husband has some health issues, was absent. City manager Bob Cowell sat in the front row of the gallery seating.
The council also approved an ordinance allowing electronic meetings in limited circumstances. However, Cowell and City Attorney Dan Callaghan said they’re still trying to learn how the body might proceed when it’s unsafe for the council to gather in person, especially with the need to approve a budget on the horizon.
How can the council not only meet, they wondered, but also conduct a required public hearing on the budget when large gatherings are dangerous for spreading COVID-19?
The Montgomery County supervisors, like other governing bodies in Southwest Virginia, typically spend this time of the year mulling over the next fiscal year’s budget and discussing key items such as real estate tax rates and school funding.
While Montgomery supervisors can probably get away with canceling special meetings such as Monday’s session, the governing body can’t avoid one another for the remainder of the budgeting season, board of supervisors Chairman Steve Fijalkowski said.
Supervisors are required to discuss items as a group, and those meetings can’t be done in private, Fijalkowski said.
“We have certain steps we have to take to make the budget official,” he said. “That’s why we have to have some kind of meeting. I don’t know any way around that.”
Another issue, Fijalkowski said, is the setting of the county’s tax rate, which has to be advertised for a period of time and subject to a public hearing before supervisors take a vote.
The responses from local governing bodies come as Gov. Ralph Northam has announced a statewide ban on all events of over 100 people and as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended on Sunday that gatherings be limited to no more than 50 people over the next eight weeks.
Christiansburg canceled a town council work session that was scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday.
“We’re continuing to reassess and will determine how best to move forward next week and in the coming weeks,” Christiansburg spokeswoman Melissa Demmitt wrote in an email.
Pulaski County canceled a Monday board of supervisors meeting. County Administrator Jonathan Sweet, however, said that cancellation was due to “other extenuating circumstances,” not the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.
As far as supervisors meetings are concerned, Pulaski County is moving forward with those events as planned, Sweet said.
“The only change is the spacing of our audience chairs for social spacing and the increase in sanitation efforts,” he said.
The town of Pulaski is following suit with its council meetings.
“At this point, we are continuing with our meeting, but the meeting space will be modified to continue the recommended social distancing — 3 feet between chairs for instance,” Pulaski Town Manager Shawn Utt wrote in an email. “Things continue to be fluid, but as of right now, as I type, we are planning to continue with the meeting.”
In Roanoke County, the board of supervisors is moving forward with a 3 p.m. emergency session Tuesday. Roanoke County supervisors are convening the emergency meeting to hear a briefing on the locality’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The locality, however, is urging residents to watch the meeting online instead of attending in person.
Following the briefing, supervisors will go into a closed session to discuss certain plans to protect public safety. The discussion is occurring in private out of concerns that an open session would jeopardize the safety of persons or government facilities, among other things.
Roanoke County supervisors also will host no public hearings Tuesday night.
The Blacksburg Town Council will go on with its regularly scheduled 11 a.m. work session Tuesday, but is moving the event to the more spacious council chambers inside the Blacksburg Municipal Building at 300 S. Main St.
And town officials are also requesting that the public not to attend.
“It will be broadcast, so we will be retaining the public nature of the meeting without risking people’s health,” Blacksburg Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith said.
Two other governing bodies that plan to convene as scheduled this week are Franklin County Board of Supervisors, who meet Tuesday, and the Giles County Board of Supervisors, meeting Thursday.
The Radford City Council will likely hold virtual meetings for at least the next few weeks, said Mayor David Horton.
Also Monday, Roanoke, Salem, Vinton and Roanoke and Botetourt counties each declared local emergencies, with officials in each locality saying the move would give them the authority and flexibility to mobilize resources needed to respond to the COVID-19 emergency.
The step would allow them to request state and federal resources, should those be needed.
Staff writers Mike Allen, Matt Chittum, Alison Graham and Sam Wall contributed to this report.