The Portland City Council voted 9-0 Monday night to declare a limited emergency that will allow it and other municipal boards and commissions to continue meeting remotely in a move spurred by a surge in the delta variant of COVID-19 and the tight meeting spaces at City Hall.

In its emergency order, the council expressed concerns related to “less than ideal ventilation in City Hall meeting venues” as one of the factors in its decision to continue remote meetings. The order, which will be in effect until councilors rescind it, states that the majority of new infections in the United States and in Maine involve the delta variant, a highly contagious virus strain first identified in India in December.

The delta variant represents 47.6 percent of all sequenced samples collected in Maine, the emergency order said.

Mayor Kate Snyder, who brought the order before the City Council, gave no indication as to how long the emergency order would remain in effect, but the city’s corporation counsel said councilors will have the ability to lift the order within a short period of time if COVID-19 infection rates decrease.

Snyder and other city officials said it doesn’t make a lot of sense to hold in-person meetings at City Hall now – the council chambers has seating capacity for 49 people – since Portland will continue to keep City Hall closed for most in-person business. City Manager Jon Jennings announced Friday that he plans to continue to offer only limited in-person services at City Hall. Most city business will continue to be conducted online.

“It’s not intended to limit public access,” Snyder said of the emergency order. “It’s our priority to protect the public’s health. For me, this feels like the prudent path to take.”

While most councilors said they would prefer to hold in-person meetings, there seemed to be widespread agreement that protecting the public and staff’s health from the highly transmissible delta variant was the safest course of action.

Councilor Belinda Ray said she felt uncomfortable with the prospect of holding an in-person meeting in the cramped City Council chambers where it would be nearly impossible to maintain 6 feet of spacing. Before the pandemic, spectators would be seated in rows next to each other with less than a couple of feet of distance.

“I think caution is the wisest approach to take here,” Ray said.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said he dislikes holding public meetings on Zoom, but he supported the emergency order.

“I think at some point we’ll get there. We can’t be online forever,” he said.

Councilor Pious Ali said he fully supports the decision to continue holding meetings remotely. Ali said it would be impossible to check everyone entering City Hall to attend an in-person meeting to see if they were vaccinated.

“We are stewards of our city and it’s our job to look out for the well being of our citizens,” said Councilor Andrew Zarro, who supported the emergency order.

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 expired June 30 and Gov. Janet Mills has decided not to continue to issue them, the council would have been required to hold meetings in person unless it declared a limited public emergency. Municipalities were allowed to continue meeting remotely through July despite the June 30 expiration date.

Several communities have returned or are on the verge of hosting in-person meetings, including the Auburn City Council, Saco City Council, Falmouth Town Council and the Windham Town Council.

Snyder said Portland’s City 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.

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. The council returns to its typical schedule of two meetings a month in September.

The City Council’s order strongly recommends that all city boards and commissions adhere to the council’s emergency order and continue to hold meetings remotely, but Corporation Counsel Danielle West said the decision to continue with remote meetings will be left up to each individual board.

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