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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / The Chattanooga Council Chamber is seen on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Changes to the council chamber have been to encourage social distancing and reduce the spread of COVID-19

After roughly six months of remote meetings and closed facilities, Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments are preparing to return to the "next normal," as coronavirus lingers.

In mid-March, many government services and buildings began closing or modifying services as the COVID-19 pandemic seeped into Chattanooga. Not long after, the Hamilton County Commission and Chattanooga City Council began meeting remotely to keep members and citizens safe from the virus.

After being granted permission to meet remotely by a statewide emergency declaration, both bodies navigated new technologies and meeting rules to allow public access while meeting electronically. Now, as the area begins to adjust to life amid the persistent virus, the bodies are now grappling with when and how to return to regular voting meetings.

On the one hand, the County Commission will begin meeting in person again, for the first time since April, at its next meeting on Sept. 30, though several weeks remain under Gov. Bill Lee's executive order that allows local voting bodies to meet remotely during the state of emergency.

Chairman Chip Baker says this is in order to prepare for "the next normal."

"We're still not sure exactly what that entails, but obviously we've got COVID as a factor and flu as a factor, so we all have to figure out and adapt to the best way we can do business," he said Thursday, noting how agile everyone, including government, has had to be during the pandemic.

"The tables have turned and we have to turn with it," Baker said. "COVID has become a part of our lives, and we've incorporated it into every part of our life, and that has to include commission meetings."

Baker said the commission was preparing for the weekly in-person meetings by installing plexiglass dividers between commissioners' seats, which are less than 6 feet apart from each other, deep cleaning the chambers and requiring masks, temperature checks and socially distanced seating for other attendees.

Over the past few months, commissioners and county staff have participated in electronic video call meetings through Cisco Webex and allowed the public to view meetings live on YouTube and dial-in for public comment. With limited seating, due to spacing, Baker said the commission will incorporate some of its newly-learned tricks to allow full participation from the public and staff.

"Obviously, we'll limit the number of staff members there to those who need to be present, to keep the number of people down, and the public will be somewhat limited too," Baker said. "But we'll likely be looking at an in-person/Webex hybrid to make sure everyone is still able to hear us and call in."

And, Baker said, these tips may help shape access to public meetings after the virus is gone.

"My favorite motto in COVID came from a constituent: 'Everything we do in life, we have to go figure out how to do it.' Go figure," he said. "But now that we know how to do this and have the ability to let people call in, I would bet it becomes a permanent thing where people are able to participate in new ways."

Baker said the commission has been working with the Hamilton County Health Department and the County Technical Advisory Service of Tennessee to make safe plans to return, and there will be a walk-through on Wednesday to test safety before returning the following week.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga City Council moves online, county commission maintains in-person meetings amid COVID-19)

A few blocks over, the Chattanooga City Council chambers are beginning to look similar to what Baker describes.

The chamber room has dividers between council seats. Trash bags and caution tape divide audience seating to create social distancing. Staff and media areas are rearranged to allow proper spacing.

But still, after six months away, the City Council is not yet planning to return.

"I've talked to a couple of council members that are still concerned about going back in person for different reasons," Chairman Chip Henderson said Thursday. "I want everybody to be comfortable."

Henderson said that the council will continue to meet via Zoom for as long as the governor's order allows it, because it's working to keep everyone safe.

"I think in large part, what we're doing is working," Henderson said, noting there are occasional hiccups with online meetings. "There is a little difficult running of, you know, having a Zoom meeting but for the most part, council has handled it well and we've been able to, obviously, conduct business."

When council members do return, after the order expires on Oct. 28 — or potentially later if the governor extends it further — Henderson said council members will likely wear masks until situated behind the glass.

Citizens will be expected to wear masks if the county mandate is still in place, seating will be limited and the council will work to keep meetings as accessible as possible for those who wish to attend and participate, which may include in-person seating in other parts of the City Council building, electronic participation or other necessary changes to standard meeting protocol.

While some details are being determined, Henderson said one thing is for sure: Meetings are going to look different.

"Once we have to go back, I'm sure once the order runs out, we'll have to continue, I would think, social distancing and so forth," he said. " We're trying to take everything into consideration for public safety."

Meanwhile, the Hamilton County Health Department says all county businesses and services continue to operate under the guidance of the governor's Tennessee Pledge and County Mayor Jim Coppinger's recently renewed mask mandate.

Chattanooga city facilities remain closed to the public, according to a spokesperson for the mayor, but "city administrators are monitoring the spread to determine reopening plans."

To connect to the city's live meetings, go to chattanooga.gov/city-council.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @sarahgtaylor.

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