AUGUSTA — The Augusta City Council will halt in-person meetings and go back to only online ones due to concerns that the number of people in Maine with COVID-19 is skyrocketing.

Instead of meeting in person, Augusta councilors will return to conducting their business only via Zoom, as they did when the coronavirus pandemic first rose to become a concern in March. All other city boards and committees have been told to do the same.

Councilors met online-only until early June, when councilors returned to in-person meetings. That’s when the Fort Western Room at the city-owned Augusta Civic Center was reopened to host in-person meetings for as many as 50 people, with the space setup to allow for social distancing.

Last week, while meeting in-person at the Civic Center, Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti expressed concern about the council and other city groups meeting in person as the number of cases of COVID-19 in Maine increase, breaking previous records. On Monday, cases climbed to more than 200 in a single day for the first time.

“When should we consider going back to Zoom meetings and not coming out here and not having the public come out here?” Conti asked at a Nov. 5 council meeting. “I have some concerns. If we can do our business remotely, I think we should discuss the possibility we do that now.”

Other councilors agreed and voted  7-0 to go to remote-only meetings. In addition, they issued an order that until further notice all city boards and committees would meet remotely. The only exception was a Planning Board meeting scheduled for Tuesday for which notices had already been posted.

Mayor David Rollins said when councilors first went to online meetings, it largely eliminated the opportunity for members of the public to participate.

City Manager William Bridgeo and Steve Langsdorf, the city’s attorney, said there have been advances in technology that allow better public participation in online meetings now.

“I represent a number of municipalities and all the other large municipalities I’m representing are remote and they are very functional at allowing public participation,” Langsdorf said. “We didn’t do it well before, but it has evolved. The rate is doubling, tripling, it just doesn’t seem safe to keep bringing people out.”

Bridgeo said he would work with officials of CTV-7, which broadcasts and streams council meetings on channel 7 and online, to ensure technology is setup to allow members of the public to participate in online council meetings.

At-Large Councilor Marci Alexander said the increase in reported cases in Maine indicates there is community spread of the virus and there are people who have the coronavirus without knowing they have it, increasing the risk of its spread. She urged residents to wear masks and keep social contact with others to a minimum.

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