ITHACA, N.Y. –– On July 7, 2021, the Ithaca City Common Council held its first in-person meeting since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic about 15 months ago.
“I’m also grateful that we’re back in Council chambers,” Alderperson Graham Kerslick said. “I know we joked about it over Zoom, but it’s actually really great to be back in person. I certainly appreciate that, and I appreciate the public being here.”
The Ithaca City Common Council suspended in-person meetings and switched to Zoom at the start of the pandemic, with the March 25, 2020 meeting being the first to be broadcast via YouTube. They resumed in-person meetings after the state of emergency Governor Andrew Cuomo declared for New York ended on June 24.
Alderperson Laura Lewis said the Common Council was agile as it adapted to the changing circumstances, both in implementing virtual meetings and in reinstating in-person meetings.
“The switch flipped very quickly when we went into the pandemic,” Lewis said, “and then the switch flipped equally quickly two Thursdays ago at midnight, going into the weekend, when we learned that the state of emergency expired and therefore, the executive orders had also expired, thus requiring in-person meetings.”
About 20 members of the public attended the meeting, filling most of the seats in the conference room in City Hall. Few of the attendees wore face coverings to the meeting. The Common Council recorded the meeting and uploaded the recording of the meeting to YouTube the day after the meeting.
While some people who attended the virtual meetings might not have attended the in-person meetings, other residents lack the devices necessary to watch the meetings online.
“Much as our meetings on Zoom enabled some people, more people, perhaps, in the public to attend meetings without having to come to City Hall, it also meant that some who did not have the technology, didn’t have access to the library, for example, to use their technology, could not take advantage,” Lewis said. “So I just wanted to say welcome back to everyone.”
Fay Gougakis, a Common Council regular pre-pandemic, spoke at the meeting complaining that council asking residents to sign in online has been unfair to people without access to technology, as she does not own a computer or cell phone.
“To me, yes, technology has its place,” Gougakis said, “and you have Zoom meetings or whatever, but today, to do this, is unfair.”
Several other residents attended the meeting to share their concerns and criticisms with the Common Council on a range of topics, which Alderperson Cynthia Brock thanked them for. Brock also brought up some struggles the community is facing, such as with mental health, environmental change and the economy, before reassuring the speakers that the Common Council takes their concerns seriously.
“It’s kind of interesting,” Brock said. “Here we are, 15 months after our last meeting, and we’re going on as if life is normal, but everything has changed in those 15 months.”
The Common Council also discussed the damage Stewart Park suffered in the recent thunderstorms to improving pedestrian access to the Farmer’s Market during its meeting. Overall though, the main tone of the in-person gathering was grateful, with Alderperson Lewis adding appreciative remarks regarding the city government’s efforts to get through the pandemic.
“I think there are many, many thanks to go around over this last year and a half,” Lewis said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us; I’m not ignoring that, and yet, I think it’s really important to pause and thank those who have helped us get through this last year and a half.”