Detroit extends emergency order for virtual meetings to curb COVID-19

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Detroit — Amid circulation of contagious COVID-19 variants and a lagging vaccination rate, the state's largest city is extending an emergency health order permitting virtual public meetings. 

Detroit's Chief Public Health Officer Denise Fair on Wednesday issued a public health order to extend restrictions in place for the Open Meetings Act through July 31. The order is aimed at reducing spread of COVID-19 and variants in Detroit. 

“Multiple governmental bodies in Detroit have directly communicated the desire to have the flexibility to hold hybrid meetings, with both in-person and virtual components due to the lack of space to be able to physically distance themselves,” Fair said. "We recognize the importance of conducting open and transparent government meetings but we need to do so in a manner that does not jeopardize the public's health and safety.”

The continued allowance of virtual meetings in Detroit comes a day after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer visited Belle Isle to tout Michigan's reopening. The state on Tuesday eased its broadest remaining restrictions on masks and indoor gatherings 15 months into the pandemic. 

Detroit's Chief Public Health Officer Denise Fair gives a COVID-19 update during a press conference at the Detroit Public Safety headquarters in Detroit on March 22, 2021.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan joined with Whitmer Tuesday to applaud her leadership. But he also warned of emerging COVID-19 variants, including the Delta variant. The strain was first identified in India but is gaining ground in the U.S., including in Michigan. 

"We're going to see this (Delta variant) come back up again," Duggan said Tuesday. "So, please keep talking to your friends and relatives about getting vaccinated."

Detroit was hard-hit early on by the coronavirus. As of Wednesday, the city has recorded 51,435 confirmed cases and 2,270 deaths. 

Detroit's vaccination rate lags surrounding counties. About 37% of city residents so far have received one dose, according to the city's COVID-19 dashboard. That's compared to 62% in outer-Wayne County, 54% in Macomb County and 65% in Oakland and Washtenaw counties.

To ramp up vaccinations Detroit has offered "good neighbor" incentives and walk-up vaccination clinics at the TCF Center, Farewell Recreational Center, Northwest Activities Center and the Samaritan Center.

The emergence and spread of the SARS-CoV-2 variants in Detroit and surrounding communities, and current vaccination rates "pose a substantial risk" to members of the public and governmental bodies in Detroit, the order adds. 

Virtual meetings — those held remotely and attended by computer — have been deemed appropriate, providing that citizens have access to attend via Zoom or other teleconferencing means.

Health Department spokesperson Barbara Roethler noted Wednesday the emergency order could be rescinded prior to July 31 by a subsequent order. Public bodies subject to the Open Meetings Act, she said, must avoid meeting in person as necessary to reduce the risk of spreading infection.

"This is a public health matter and depending on information, the order could conceivably be lifted next week if it is considered appropriate," Roethler said.

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