The Portland City Council will decide Monday whether to postpone a plan to return to in-person council meetings amid the increasing spread of the delta variant of COVID-19.

The council will discuss a proposal to declare a limited emergency, which would allow it to continue to hold meetings online and delay a planned return to in-person meetings in August.

Mayor Kate Snyder said the idea of holding in-person meetings doesn’t make much sense because Portland will continue to keep City Hall closed for most in-person business. She also said an increase in COVID-19 cases in Maine and the emergence of a variant that can spread even among vaccinated people are reasons to reconsider returning to in-person meetings.

Like other public bodies in the state, the council shifted to remote meetings last year under the repeated state of emergency declarations issued by the governor during the height of the pandemic. Since those emergency declarations have expired and Gov. Janet Mills has decided not to continue to issue them, the council needs to hold meetings in person unless it declares a limited public emergency.

Snyder said Portland’s emergency declaration will be open-ended, allowing the council to continue remote meetings until it determines in-person sessions are safe, at which time it would rescind the limited emergency.

Snyder said she and city staffers have been discussing the return to in-person meetings for the past few weeks, wondering if it was a responsible move.

With the increasing number of cases, the new variant and the fact that children under 12 aren’t  allowed to get vaccinated, delaying the return of in-person meetings “feels like better safe than sorry,” Snyder said.

She also said it doesn’t make much sense to say it’s not safe to open City Hall, but then open it for a meeting drawing people together in a room that is not well-ventilated.

City Manager Jon Jennings announced Friday that he plans to continue to offer only limited in-person services at City Hall. Most business will continue to be conducted online, city officials said, and the only in-person services available are by appointment only with the Treasury Department for auto registration and property taxes, and walk-in services for the City Clerk and parking offices for services such as birth, death and marriage certificates; elections and voting matters; dog licenses; parking tickets; and permits.

The council will hold Monday’s meeting online because it is an emergency session, Snyder said. A state law dealing with open meetings allows them to be held remotely only in an emergency.

The City Council normally cuts back on its meetings during the summer, and after Monday’s emergency meeting the next session will be Aug. 23, Snyder said. The council returns to its typical schedule of two meetings a month in September.

Snyder said the council will continue to allow people to participate in the meetings online even after the council decides to hold sessions in person. She said the city discovered during the pandemic that more people participate in the meetings if they don’t have to travel to City Hall to take part.

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