Faced with a spike in COVID-19, New Bern aldermen switched back to Zoom format at the Dec. 8 meeting.
An agenda for an in-person meeting was released on Dec. 3, but on Dec. 4 it was modified to a Zoom format.
According to Alderman Jeffrey Odham, the change was a result of a conversation he had with Alderman Sabrina Bengel over their concerns about the COVID-19 spread.
For more New Bern Post COVID-19 coverage, go here.
It is unclear when that conversation took place, but it didn’t take place during an open meeting of the board.
At the Nov. 24 meeting, when Bengel suggested that meetings go back to Zoom format because of rising pandemic numbers, Odham, in response, didn’t talk about a Zoom meeting but did seem to question the necessity of wearing masks.
It’s old news, but Alderman Odham asked the New Bern Post for clarification.
The New Bern Post reported about the Board of Aldermen’s switch from in-person to Zoom shortly after it was announced on Dec. 3, and for background, summarized what had happened at the Nov. 24 meeting when the subject first arose.
In short, Bengel brought it up, Odham dismissed it, and Alderwoman Jameesha Harris said city leaders ought to be setting better examples.
The article drew a comment from a New Bern Post reader on Facebook.
“Odham dismissed Bengel’s concern about a virus that has infected >3,200 county residents and killed 73?” the reader commented on the New Bern Post’s Facebook page.
Odham responded on Facebook that it was news to him. “I was the one who talked to Sabrina about going back to the Zoom format. Maybe Randy (Randy Foster, New Bern Post editor and publisher) can enlighten me on his interpretation of my ‘dismissing’ her concern.”
Foster responded via Facebook.
“Thanks for asking, Alderman Odham,” Foster wrote. “I sent you an email on Nov. 25 saying this: ‘I listened to your comments about COVID-19 and executive orders. What are your thoughts about COVID-19?’ You didn’t respond.
“During the Nov. 24 meeting, Alderman Bengel brought up the subject of virtual meetings for discussion. Your responses include saying there were concerns about holding public meetings via Zoom (city manager said there weren’t); comments about conflicting executive orders; comments about whether municipalities were required to follow the governor’s executive order; and whether firemen had to wear masks while sleeping at the fire house. Alderwoman Harris responded that elected officials have to set a good example. The discussion paused for other topics and was brought up again by Alderman Best, who agreed that aldermen have to set up a good example. You may have decided off-channel at a later date, as the spread escalated, that Zoom meetings were necessary, but you seemed to disagree that even masks were necessary at the Nov. 24 meeting.”
Continue reading below for more details from the Nov. 24 meeting. But there’s a bigger point.
We are in the midst of a pandemic. Most local government leaders have underplayed it. They pushed local schools to open their classrooms, businesses to return to normal, and churches to fill the pews.
Craven Sheriff Chip Hughes even publicly refused to enforce governor’s executive orders.
They have vocal constituents who have their ear. Many of the concerns are valid, such as whether remote learning is effective and impacts on the economy and personal mental health.
If effective preventive measures were taken early by a supportive leadership setting a good example, we would be a lot better off now. It would have been a major inconvenience, but a deadly pandemic is more than an inconvenience. The national death toll is now more than 290,000, 75 of whom lived in Craven County.
A vaccine is upon us and people say we don’t need to be careful any more (as if we were careful enough to begin with).
CarolinaEast Medical Center will be one of the first hospitals to get it. But that vaccine will be administered only to front-line medical workers. It will be months before average citizens have access.
There are a lot of people who won’t take the vaccine because they have doubts about the its effectiveness, or side effect, or necessity, or even the motivations behind it.
We are approaching 80 new cases a day in Craven County.
Blame that on bad leadership at local, county, state, and national levels.
Here are facts: We are in the midst of an emergency, more than 3,500 Craven County residents are or have been sick, and 75 have died from it.
Here are assumptions: Thousands more will get sick in Craven County and many more will die before there will be enough vaccine to make a difference.
New cases are spiking. Hospitalizations are rising. Soon, the rate of deaths will escalate. That post-Thanksgiving spike will continue for a week or more and, unless we learned from Thanksgiving, it will start again into and after the Christmas break even worse.
There’s no vaccine that will fix that.
Much of this can be prevented:
- Wear masks
- Social distance
- Avoid crowds
- Wash hands
- Leaders need to set the example.
Alderman Odham decided that board meetings needed to go back to Zoom format. That’s a baby step.
It is generally assumed that he will run for mayor next year, and his actions this year will be informative about what kind of mayor he would be.
He could be a mayor who can lead the city through a disaster, making sometimes unpopular decisions that history will show he acted correctly and courageously.
Or he can call for a Zoom meeting while at the same time spreading confusion over something as simple but important as wearing a mask.
The idea of going back to virtual meetings was brought up during New Business by Alderman Sabrina Bengel at the Nov. 24 Board of Aldermen meeting.
Under the New Business portion of the meeting, Alderman Bengel said that with a recent executive order by Gov. Roy Cooper and concern about the increase in spread, “maybe we need to go back to Zoom meeting for awhile … for the next month or two.”
She said she was hearing concerns from people and thought she would put the idea out for the board’s discussion.
City Manager Mark Stephens said going back to Zoom format was not a big issue and actually very simple.
Odham asked whether there are concerns about the public’s ability to participate in public hearings using the Zoom format.
Harris asked how the swearing-in of board officers at the Dec. 8 meeting would be accomplished in a Zoom format.
City Clerk Brenda Blanco said that the aldermen could come to the office the next day or take the oath virtually and come in and sign the oath later.
Bengel said there is a need to control the spread.
Alderman Bobby Aster asked if a motion was necessary to switch to Zoom format. His question went unanswered.
Alderman Barbara Best asked why a Zoom meeting was necessary since they were separated from each other by plexiglass. (Side note: Best wears a mask during meetings, anyway.)
Bengel said there are a lot of concerns and that she wanted to put it out for discussion. She said having Zoom meetings would make it easier for people to speak because they could do it without a mask.
Aster pointed out that citizens are concerned, noting that there were none in physical attendance at the Nov. 24 meeting.
Best said they only complaints she has heard have been about city officials not wearing masks.
Odham wanted advice from the city attorney, who had left the meeting.
Odham said there had been so many executive orders from Governor Cooper and that they conflicted about mass gathering limits, government meetings, whether the orders applied to churches vs. restaurants, and whether restaurant patrons had to remain masked while eating and drinking.
He then asked whether the Governor’s executive orders even applied to county and municipal government buildings.
City Manager Stephens said the executive orders apply to government buildings but that counties and municipalities are encouraged to follow suit. He admitted there was a little ambiguity.
Odham asked whether firemen at the fire house were required to wear masks while sleeping at night.
Firefighters are required to wear a mask while in their trucks, but enforcing mask rules around the clock at the fire houses was difficult to enforce.
Harris said, “I don’t understand why we are not advocating as elected officials to encourage to wear the masks. It makes no sense to partner with people to get testing for the community but then don’t wear the mask.
It is counterproductive, she said.
“If the governor has created an executive order, it is important for us to say, hey, we need to wear the mask,” Harris said.
She said the city is still promoting public holiday events although the numbers have not gone down in Craven County.
“I don’t understand why everyone’s not on the same page with this mandate,” Harris said.
Best brought it up again during her turn in New Business.
She said the board had not come to a consensus.
Bengel said the Centers for Disease Control had just announced that individuals don’t have to quarantine as long. “So that’s changing. Vaccine is at our doorstep. That will change things,” Bengel said.
She said whether to wear a mask is a personal decision based on personal desires and medical needs.
Best pointed out that citizens are required to wear mask in City Hall. “If we post that masks are required, we need to set example. Either do or don’t. We are city officials. We are the leaders of our city.”
Bengel pointed out that during hurricanes, mandatory evacuations are often ignored and that whether to escape is a personal choice.
“I want citizens to be safe, but I don’t want to be bullied and I don’t want to bully people,” Bengel said.
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