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Sumter City Council to move to Opera House, open meetings for public

Local government navigating openness as virus cases rise

BY SHELBIE GOULDING
shelbie@theitem.com
Posted 6/19/20

Despite the state's number of new COVID-19 cases, which is seeing the biggest increases since the pandemic began, South Carolina continues to reopen.

Gov. Henry McMaster issued a seventh state of emergency declaration last week, lifting any …

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Sumter City Council to move to Opera House, open meetings for public

Local government navigating openness as virus cases rise

Posted

Despite the state's number of new COVID-19 cases, which is seeing the biggest increases since the pandemic began, South Carolina continues to reopen.

Gov. Henry McMaster issued a seventh state of emergency declaration last week, lifting any virus-related restrictions on the number of people inside stores and opening bowling alleys.

Though the state is easing its restrictions, Sumter's local government is taking slower steps as it reopens city and county services in Sumter.

During Sumter City Council's Tuesday meeting, council voted to continue holding meetings remotely now through mid-August, but they plan for in-person meetings to begin again soon. Public meetings have been closed to the public but live-streamed, with public comments, a critical aspect of a democratic local government, being requested by emails that must be sent beforehand.

At the meeting, Mayor Joe McElveen said he thinks council needs to continue social distancing as the coronavirus is still a threat.

At the same meeting, council also unanimously passed a second emergency ordinance to hold boards' and commissions' public meetings and hearings at the Sumter Opera House. Those groups need to hold public meetings to make decisions and start city projects, City Manager Deron McCormick said.

"Effectively, we need to have those public hearings with the boards and commissions," McCormick said. "We're not all the way open, but we're trying to accommodate those things that need to happen as safely as possible."

Since the pandemic made its presence in Sumter, city boards and commissions meetings have been on hold, but with the state reopening, the City of Sumter thinks it can slightly reopen by holding public hearings in a larger space, especially because there's a large number of projects needing to get approved by council, McCormick said.

McCormick confirmed that the next council meeting, which will be held July 21, will be held at the Sumter Opera House auditorium. This will be the first meeting in three months that will be open to the public for public hearing matters.

Planning staff have deadlines they need to meet, so the public hearings need to be held, but council has the authority to pull back to remote-only meetings.

"We're kind of walking a fine line," he said. "Staff-wise, we think we can offer an opportunity and keep people safe at the same time."

McCormick said the plan is to have staff direct traffic into the Opera House. Attendees will be required to have their temperatures checked at the door, and they must wear a mask. If attendees do not have a mask, the city will provide them.

Boards and commissions members will also follow the same protocol and sit 6 feet apart on the stage, while the public is seated 6 feet apart in the auditorium.

McCormick said they will have audio playing outside of the auditorium for people who don't feel comfortable attending the meeting.

"We don't want to get anyone sick, but we do want business to operate as smoothly as possible," McCormick said.

At this point, McCormick said the city is unsure whether public comments will be open during the July meeting, but that question will be answered on the July meeting's public agenda.

The City of Sumter is still encouraging the public to send comments to council for the time being.

"We want people to be able to do it in person as long as we can have a reasonable expectation of safety," McCormick said. "With the state trying to open up, we're trying to open up back to what we knew was normal."

McCormick also said the city is looking to start reopening some city services, but for now, they're still restricted.

"We've tried to keep all the services open. They're just modified," McCormick said.

Most city services have been ongoing via telecommunication formats, but some services are still affected by COVID-19. Curbside recycling is still on hold, playground equipment remains off limits, and parks are open but have limited access to facilities.

"Our curbside recycling is still affected at this point because we sort things at the curb, so there's an additional risk by our employees having to sort all of those things," McCormick said.

When it comes to the city parks, McCormick said they're waiting for state and health officials to open up playground equipment and fully open parks.

"We're going to follow the state's lead and health professionals' lead on all of those things and try to have everybody as normal as possible," McCormick said.

When it comes to the county government, Sumter County Council Chairman Jim McCain said they are unsure when they will reopen in-person meetings to the public, especially after hearing that two Sumter County Sheriff's Office employees recently tested positive for COVID-19. The sheriff's office said there is no known spread of the virus from either the detention officer or deputy.

"As far as I know, we're going to be meeting like we did the last meeting," McCain said. "Even though the governor is opening things back up, the virus is still spreading. We now have several county employees that have tested positive, so we're just finding that out."

Sumter County Administrator Gary Mixon said that while Sumter County Government offices are still closed to the public, they are working on a plan to reopen safely in the future.

"We're mindful of a recent spike in coronavirus cases both statewide and locally, and the health and well-being of our workforce is our main priority," Mixon said. "With that mind, when we reopen our offices to the public, we expect people to be respectful of social distancing protocols. Federal and state health experts continue to recommend wearing a mask in public, and we think that is a prudent measure as we all have to do our best to stop the spread of coronavirus."