DELMAR — The Bethlehem Planning Board reverted back to holding its public meetings virtually starting with last night’s forum on Tuesday, Sept. 21.
“Due to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Delta variant, the Town of Bethlehem Planning Board will hold its meetings via video conference / webinar and a transcript of the meeting will be provided at a later date,” board members shared in a statement on the town website Tuesday, Sept. 14. The statement added that meetings would be open to the public through the town’s virtual meeting portal.
Since the board’s statement last week, the town’s Industrial Development Agency also announced it would revert back to virtual meetings.
Transmission numbers have been climbing, widely considered to be due to the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus. Albany County has climbed within what the Center for Disease Control has labeled a substantial transmission area, where 50 to 100 cases per 100,000, or a positivity rate between 8 and 10 percent has been recorded.
The decision to pivot board meetings back to the virtual platform fell on the same day Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy shared sobering news of the virus’ transmission numbers in the area.
“Tragically I have to report another Albany County resident losing their life to COVID, the second death in as many days. Unfortunately, there have now been 400 deaths since the pandemic started, and I’m extending my condolences to every family who has lost someone, especially those who are grieving today,” said McCoy.
Between Sept. 5 and Sept. 11, 458 new COVID infections were identified and analyzed by the county Health Department. Of those 458, 218 were fully vaccinated, 205 were not and for 35 cases, the vaccination status was unknown.
Of local patients hospitalized by the virus, McCoy said 71 percent are not vaccinated, 3 percent are partially vaccinated and 26 percent were fully vaccinated.
On Sept. 2, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation, extending virtual access to public meetings under New York state’s Open Meetings Law, allowing local governments to host public meeting virtually during the pandemic.
The legislation, which was first implemented by Executive Order during last year’s State of Emergency. Last March, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo allowed state and local government meetings to be held remotely, as long as the public could view or listen to the meeting and as long as the meeting was recorded and later transcribed.
This statutory change will reduce the need for congregation at public meetings while the Delta variant is prevalent, while ensuring public business can continue.
“Let’s be clear—the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and I’ve heard from government officials across the state who are concerned about the inability of their constituents to access public meetings virtually,” Hochul said. “This commonsense legislation extends a privilege that not only helps New Yorkers participate safely in the political process, but also increases New Yorkers’ access to their government by allowing for more options to view public meetings. This law will continue to bolster the open and transparent style of government that we’re committed to maintaining in the Empire State.”
On March 12, 2020, Executive Order 202.1 suspended the portion of New York State law requiring meetings to take place in person, and authorized public meetings to be held virtually. On June 25, 2021, the State Disaster Emergency ended, removing the provision suspending the law.
The planning board will go back to broadcasting meetings over the Zoom virtual meeting platform, inviting visitors up to 30 minutes prior to the meeting’s start time. Similar to in-person meetings at Town Hall, public comments on regular agenda items are allowed during public hearings as well as the public comment period at the start of the meeting.