Virus concerns lead to `public' meetings without the public

In this March 18 photo, the House chamber at the state Capitol is empty in St. Paul, Minnesota, with some desks marked with an ‘A.’

These are extraordinary times that necessitate an extraordinary level of sacrifice.

All of us are asked to embrace painful trade-offs to enhance the health and well-being of our fellow citizens, particularly those most at risk from the coronavirus. The growing list of things to give up includes schools, worship services and even the ability to walk into a bar and order a beer.

There’s one other sacrifice that must not be overlooked: participation in government meetings. Because of social distancing requirements, many public meetings on the state and local levels now are conducted without the public. For many who want to watch or participate, access is limited to video, teleconference or some kind of Livestream technology.

The trend was on display at this week’s St. Joseph City Council meeting. The public was not allowed to attend but could watch online or on television. It was possible to sit in the first-floor lobby of City Hall, where seats were spaced 6 feet apart.

The St. Joseph Board of Education made its Monday meeting available on YouTube. In Jefferson City, the Missouri General Assembly is adjourned until the end of the month. Lawmakers are likely to go forward with some kind of truncated session with virtual access.

If you think we’re complaining, we’re not. Access to public meetings is sorely missed because it’s essential to a functioning democracy, but it’s another accommodation that must be made for the greater public good. We understand that.

What’s more, local governing boards have displayed a desire for openness with technology that allows the public to watch and also to comment or present questions. The danger here isn’t the temporary switch to a virtual format, it’s the fear that it could make it easier to backslide into limited face-to-face access when the crisis finally passes.

Parents right now are learning that a virtual school is better than nothing, but it doesn’t beat the experience of going into a building and engaging with peers and teachers. The same could be said for watching your council or legislature online. It simply doesn’t compare to the ability to watch in real time and give them a piece of your mind.

More than anything, this constantly evolving situation shows the need for openness and transparency, even at a time when that’s not always possible. It was possible this week, but Clinton County health authorities still made the puzzling decision not to disclose the community where a positive COVID-19 patient lives. Health officials said it’s “not germane to the discussion,” but we would think people who live in Clinton County might beg to differ.

They can’t blame that one on social distancing. Maybe people will have something to say about that at a virtual meeting, or a face-to-face one at a distant date.