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Nova Scotia municipalities remain limited to virtual meetings

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WATCH: Several municipal councillors are calling on the province to let them get back to in-person meetings.

As many provinces continue to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, some are wondering when Nova Scotia politics will return to normal.

Municipalities across the province had to switch over to virtual meetings due to COVID-19, as directed by the province’s Minister of Municipal Affairs as part of the state of emergency declared on March 22.

The state of emergency has been extended multiple times and remains in effect until at least July 26.

Read more: State of emergency extended in Nova Scotia again; province hits 1,000 resolved cases

The directive from the Minister ordered all municipalities to “discontinue holding their meetings in person,” allowing “only virtual meetings” to be held.

Now that businesses have been allowed to reopen and workers have slowly begun to return to workplaces, it has some wondering why in-person council meetings can’t also resume across the province.

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“[It] made perfect sense in March and April, and maybe even in May, but for over a month we’ve requested the option to meet in person,” said David Mitchell, mayor of Bridgewater, N.S.

“That’s been rejected.”

Mitchell says the council chamber in Bridgewater has already been rearranged so that it would allow for eight feet between all council members, which is more than the required six feet for physical distancing.

“I just don’t understand the justification for preventing local government from having meetings in person,” said Mitchell.

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“I could legally have my council over in my backyard for a barbecue if we’re social distancing, but I can’t have them around the council chambers eight feet apart because that would come with an up to $10,000 fine.”

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But not every municipality is ready to move back to in-person meetings.

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In Halifax, it would still take some time to figure out how to do things safely.

“With us, we certainly sit within fairly close proximity, and there’s not a lot of room behind us to enter and exit the chambers, so that is going to be a challenge,” said Lisa Blackburn, deputy mayor of Halifax.

Blackburn says that, for the most part, virtual meetings have been working well for Halifax Regional Council, but she says there are some things that can be missed.

“Certainly the public participation piece is the big one that we have to deal with now,” said Blackburn.

“We do have a number of public hearings coming up in the near future and we have to find a way to do those.”

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The Department of Municipal Affairs declined an interview request, but in a statement acknowledged that some municipalities have reached out looking for more flexibility.

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However, the department said, “for now, the Ministerial Order stands. The technology is available for municipalities to have virtual meetings through programs like Zoom or Skype.”

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Mitchell says allowing in-person meetings wouldn’t mean they would be required and virtual meetings could still be done, or even a hybrid model could be used if some individual councillors don’t feel comfortable returning.

But he says it should ultimately be up to each individual municipality to chose what works best.

“Lots of people would say they’re getting tired of virtual meetings, and I think it changes the dynamic,” said Mitchell.

“The distance of a virtual meeting means you’re not getting into the same kind of robust discussion and debate you would normally have in person.”