Executive order on remote meetings set to expire in RI Friday amid rising COVID-19 cases

Coronavirus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Asking people to mute their microphones may be a thing of the past, at least in some of Rhode Island’s public meetings.

Gov. Dan McKee’s executive order allowing public bodies to meet remotely ends Friday. McKee’s press secretary confirmed on Monday the governor intended to let it expire.

The governor has been putting an end to many pandemic-related restrictions in recent months, as vaccinations increased and cases went down across the state.

However, the rate of new cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period, which is used to track community transmission of the virus, has more than quadrupled to 41.3 since the start of the month, according to Thursday’s data from the R.I. Department of Health.

For the third straight day, state health data showed the rate of positive tests on Thursday came out to 1.8%, with 88 new cases found and fewer than 5,000 tests administered the previous day.

Noting the uptick in cases, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, whose office runs the state’s open meetings portal for hundreds of public bodies, wrote on Twitter why she felt remote meetings should continue.

“COVID continues to be unpredictable. As cases start to rise, now is not the time to make it harder for RIslanders to engage with their government. The Governor should extend this executive order to at least 9/1,” Gorbea, who is also running to be Rhode Island’s next governor, tweeted.

The Secretary of State’s open meetings portal now notes:

“Please note that as of 7/24/2021, Executive Order 21-72 has expired and all public meetings must now be held in-person. Some public bodies may still offer a live stream of their meetings to the public. Please contact the public body directly for questions about live streaming options.”

Former R.I. Gov. Gina Raimondo initially put the executive order in place in March 2020 as the virus started to spread, allowing public bodies like city and town councils, school committees, and elections boards to meet by teleconferencing, normally prohibited by the state’s Open Meetings Act.

While these kinds of meetings have allowed increased accessibility to the meetings for people to watch from home, there have been bumps along the way, from so-called “Zoom bombers” interrupting meetings to poor internet connection.

Bringing meetings back in person doesn’t mean public bodies can’t also choose to live-stream so people can watch from home; some did that before the pandemic. However, nothing in the Open Meetings Act requires meetings to be streamed, aired, or videotaped.

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