On September 8, 2021, the Chelsea City Council passed a resolution cancelling in-person Council meetings. For the remainder of the year, Council meetings will be conducted remotely using the Zoom application.
After careful consideration, however, it is clear that the resolution was wrongly decided, in that:
- no adequate predicate for action was presented in the resolution language or at the meeting;
- conditions supportive of in person meeting were not considered;
- the costs of holding meetings remotely were not evaluated, and
- the timing of this decision is suspicious.
Each of these is discussed below.
What the resolution contained
The resolution was presented with four premises (“whereas”), only two of which contained material supporting the resolution’s conclusion.
The first of these refers to increased “transmission levels” due to the Delta virus. Assuming the reference is to case loads, it is correct that they have increased since July.
However, most recent data is showing a downward trend, characteristic of this virus variant. There is every reason to believe that the caseload will be decreasing in the upcoming weeks.
The second premise merely refers to a statement by the MDHHS that an epidemic is still in place. In absence of any qualitative content, this statement has no directive force.
During discussion, no additional evidence that we are in a public health crisis was presented. It was pointed out the youth (under 12) are not eligible for the vaccine and so are unprotected. Aside from the fact that the young are generally mildly affected by the virus, mandating closing down public meeting because children cannot attend makes no sense.
What was left out
The premises presented in the resolution do not present the whole picture, however. Case loads are of secondary importance in evaluating the danger of a viral epidemic. Cases that lead to hospitalization or worse, death are of general concern.
But the number of hospitalizations in the County have been flat since May. There are 127 ICU and 1218 general hospital beds available in Region 1S at this time. This is adequate for future needs given the flat hospitalization rate. There is no need to enact further restrictions at this time.
Death rates of course are most important. However, not only are overall death rates down 2/3 from Spring 2021, they have been flat since May. The inevitable conclusion is that the Delta variant may be more contagious, but the virus is not itself more virulent. In addition, most recent deaths take place in the elderly, (> 80 years), where the impact of underlying conditions is likely to be more severe. Finally, there are no relevant County health orders active at this time.
In conclusion, there is no evidence that COVID, even in the Delta variant, requires quarantine like conditions at this time.
Difficulties with remote meetings
Zoom or other electronic (or worse, telephonic) meeting methods are poor substitutes for in person contact. It is well established that non-verbal communication is an important part of interactions between humans. Distorted speech, poor facial interpretation, and lack of body language all degrade the quality of Zoom calls.
Councilmember Albertson was able to verify this important point during discussion, based on her career as a research psychologist.
There is perhaps a more compelling reason for in-person meetings. The First Amendment to the Constitution protects the right of free speech.
By diminishing the quality of speech, Zoom meetings certainly diminish this important right. The First Amendment also protects the people’s right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances. “The spectacle of a government body passing a law which directly impedes this part of the First Amendment is dispiriting and a possible violation of their oath of office.
History requires us to examine the motives of this Council very carefully. Certainly, the timing of this resolution raises some questions.
Election campaigns for Council mayor and three Council members are now in full force. Avoiding contact with representatives of the electorate in regular meetings may be appealing to certain candidates, but it also insulates the Council from the public.
Also, the report on the external police audit is due to be briefed to the Council during this period. Criticism of the police department has been a central tenant of this Council majority. Perhaps the Council is unwilling to present this position to an in-person audience at least partly composed of those supportive of the Chelsea Police Department.
Careful examination of the trends of the COVID virus impact in Washtenaw County confirms the view that termination of in-person Council meetings is unnecessary at this time.
Thank you to Councilmembers Wisely, Feeney, and especially Albertson who recognized the problems with this resolution. Those voting in favor (Pancheo, Johnson, Iannelli and Kwas) need to rethink their justification for approval, and strive to avoid being an automatic voting machine whose votes are predetermined regardless of the evidence presented.