A larger than normal crowd watches the special City Council meeting on short term rentals Credit: Michael Isaac Stein / The Lens

The New Orleans City Council announced on Tuesday that it plans to start holding in-person meetings again this month after more than a year of virtual meetings due to the coronavirus crisis. The first in-person meeting is currently planned for May 20. 

Also on Tuesday, the director of the city’s Health Department Dr. Jennifer Avegno delivered some mixed news about the city’s vaccination efforts. She said the city’s current vaccination rate was as good or better than comparable cities. But she warned that the demand for vaccines was starting to fall, well before the city has reached vaccination rates high enough for a full return to normal. 

“We’re doing well, but the slowdown has me very concerned,” she said.

When the City Council begins in-person meetings later this month, it will employ a “hybrid meeting” model that includes elements of virtual meetings and pre-pandemic meetings. 

To start, the council chamber’s capacity will be reduced from 250 to just 30 or 40 to allow for social distancing. Masks will be required. Paul Harang, the City Council’s interim chief of staff, said that they would post staff at the entrance of the chamber to escort people to their seats. 

The city will set up overflow seating in the covered, open air breezeway that is sandwiched between the City Council chamber and the Civil District Court building. 

“It’s outdoors, so not as risky of an environment,” Harang said. “And it’s covered. So while it’s gonna be hot, people won’t get rained on in most situations.”

The breezeway is accessible through doors at the back of the City Council chamber. The council will set up chairs and a “big monitor” outside so people can watch the meetings, and people will be able to walk inside to deliver public comments. 

“I have reviewed the plan,” Avegno said. “It is completely in keeping with the guidance that is currently in place for the City of New Orleans in terms of the requirements for office buildings, the requirements for meeting rooms and other similar events. Certainly with the enforcement of masking and distancing and flow as it’s been set forth, it’s safe that council members would be well protected, as would their staff.”

Unlike before the pandemic, virtual meetings have allowed people to submit comments online without attending the meeting. That option is going to stick around, at least for now.

“We’ve allowed for this virtual written comment that people have really taken advantage of,” Harang said. “It’s really expanded access to people who normally may not be able to get to council chamber. So it’s been an interesting lesson learned for the council to engage with the public and for the people to more effectively engage.”

That will provide an option for those who are still uncomfortable going to in-person events due to COVID. But it’s unclear if that option will be around forever for people who can’t attend meetings for other reasons, such as their work hours or lack of access to transportation. 

“At least for now, while we’re still under a declared emergency, we will continue with the virtual participation option,” Harang said.

The council did discuss permanently changing meetings to allow out-of-town consultants and subject matter experts to continue participating virtually. Harang and Moreno pointed out the potential cost savings, especially for the city’s out-of-town consultants who often flew in to attend council meetings.

“This right here is so big,” Moreno said. “We have to not only pay for their flights, we have to pay for their hotel, we have to pay for their meals.”

Consultants hired by the city also routinely bill the city hundreds of dollars per hour for their time spent traveling. Moreno added that the virtual option will allow the council to get more out-of-town subject matter experts as well.

“Oftentimes, we would really like to have a subject matter expert come in and speak to the council on a variety of different topics,” she said. “But we can’t do that because we don’t have the funds to fly them down.”

City Council meetings over the last year have also run longer than usual because the council has been reading meeting agendas out loud at the beginning of meetings and taking 15 to 30 minute breaks to give people time to submit comments. The council will no longer do either of those things once in-person meetings resume. 

Councilman Jay Banks asked Avegno how long the council would have to maintain this hybrid, in-person meeting model.

“Are we ever going to get past this or this going to be the norm moving forward?” Banks asked.

“Boy I hope so,” Avegno said. “Certainly, coronavirus will always be with us. If it can become just another virus like other coronaviruses that cause the common cold or even the flu — where we know what mitigation methods to take, we know there’s a vaccine, we know there’s some seasonal component to it and we can protect against it — and it’s not overwhelming our hospitals and it’s not causing mass deaths the way we saw at the beginning of the pandemic, then I think we will all be comfortable going back to what looks a little bit more normal. That’s not tomorrow. That could be within a few months or it could be years.”

The race to a 75 percent vaccination rate

Avegno also gave a presentation on the city’s vaccination efforts on Tuesday. She started with the good news.

“As of late last week, over 43 percent of our entire population of the city received at least one dose, which translates into 54 percent of our adult or eligible population. We are on par or exceeding the national average for those rates, which is excellent.”

She said that two-thirds of the city’s population over the age of 60 — an age group that is particularly vulnerable to complications from the disease — had gotten at least one dose of the vaccine. 

The bad news, Avegno said, is that the demand for vaccines is falling.

“We have ample supply of vaccines, both Pzizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson,” she said. “We are not seeing the huge demand we were several months ago. This is occurring all over the nation, but it is particularly salient for us here in New Orleans. At the same time, we’re not where we need to be in terms of full protection.”

City officials have frequently said that 75 percent of the population would have to get vaccinated before a full return to normal was possible. 

“With the news last week that the Brazil variant was discovered in the New Orleans region, that’s just another reminder of how important it is to reach a high level of vaccination before those highly contagious, possibly more severe variants have a chance to take hold and spread and cause outbreaks, just as you’re seeing the tragedy in India and the surges that have happened in other states,” Avegno said. “So our goal of full vaccination remains.”

Avegno said there were several ways the city was looking to increase the vaccination rate. She said she expected that the Pfizer vaccine will be approved for kids age 12 to 15 next week, which will help get the vaccination rate for the overall population closer to 75 percent.

“It significantly expands the number of residents eligible,” she said. “I would also like to figure out how we can get into schools while schools are still open so we can get as many kids as possible. There are some issues there around parental consent and do parents need to be present that I know the state is working on.”

She said the city was also working on how to get the vaccines — some of which have onerous storage requirements that can be difficult to meet outside of major hospitals  — into pediatricians’ offices this summer to prepare for the upcoming school year. 

Asked if there were any strategies being used in other cities that could work here, Avegno said the city was looking at giving out incentives for vaccinations. She said the city was also looking to expand its mobile vaccination capacity and start partnering with barber shops and beauticians. And she implored residents to talk to their neighbors.

“We really need now everyone who’s been vaccinated to convince one other person or to at least talk to them, educate them, explain why you did get vaccinated,” Avegno said. “If we do that we will very quickly approach 75 percent.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...