Rochester city commissions cling to COVID-19 restrictions

To meet in person or not to meet? That is the question for several Rochester volunteer city boards and commissions whose members remain conflicted over whether it’s safe to return to in-person meetings. And if they should decide to meet in person, to mask up or not mask up? That’s the next big question that’s come up, according to the Post Bulletin, even though Gov. Walz lifted the state’s mask mandate weeks ago.

“There is still a level of discomfort with it being a public meeting,” Rochester Public Library Director Audrey Betcher said following a recent Library Board meeting.

During the meeting, Board President Antinea Ascione asked library staff to poll members about their vaccination status and comfort with returning to in-person meetings.

“We don’t know if we have some members of our board who have been unable to be vaccinated for a specific reason,” she said.

For the most part it appears Minnesotans quickly embraced the freedom of returning to pre-pandemic life. That includes the Rochester City council, which has gotten back to business as usual, meeting face-to-face.

But there’s a reluctance among some members of city boards and commissions to put the pandemic behind them and return to routine operations. They have a hard time shaking the habit of holding meetings on line, despite the state’s high level of vaccinations and low level of COVID cases. It’s still out of their comfort zone.

Rochester Mayor Kim Norton said months of online meetings. which were allowed under the pandemic state emergency declared by Gov. Tim Walz, have had some technical glitches, but many boards have overcome early problems.

“They have become quite comfortable with the Zoom meetings online,” she said, adding that the city’s Charter Commission is the only group actively seeking to return to a boardroom setting.

If the groups do resume meeting in person at some point, some board members have gone so far as to suggest requiring participants to continue wearing protective masks in the public square just to be on the safe side.

Board member Jennifer Fahse, who manages a Mayo Clinic COVID-19 testing lab, recommended consideration of a mask mandate for meetings, similar to the requirement for medical facilities.

“The masking does help reduce the chance that you would be affected if anything were floating around,” she said.

Interim City Attorney Michael Spindler-Krage said he advised against setting mask requirements for individual meetings.

Several board and commission members have similar concerns , judging by questions during recent meetings, as more of the community opens and mask use drops.

For now, the city is apparently leaving it up to individual boards and commissions to decide when and how to return to holding face-to-face meetings. The longer they take, the more isolated and out of touch they risk becoming, not only from each other but from the public and issues hinging on their decisions.