Amid spread of Delta variant, Beaufort commissioners opt for boards to remain virtual, for now

Beaufort Mayor Rett Newton, main screen, conducts a town commission meeting via Zoom in March 2020. The board decided during a work session July 26 it will continue convening virtually for the time being. (Jackie Starkey screenshot)

BEAUFORT — Beaufort’s public proceedings will remain virtual-only for the time being as leaders weigh the desire to return to in-person gatherings against the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant of the novel coronavirus.

During a virtual work session July 26, the Beaufort Board of Commissioners agreed by consensus to continue hosting public meetings on the Zoom platform. Those gatherings include the board’s regular meeting and work session, along with special meetings and regular sessions of volunteer boards and steering committees.

Commissioners had hoped to begin meeting in person in August.

“The (Delta) variant is a very aggressive variant, just want to let you know. It acts quickly and it spreads quickly,” Commissioner Sharon Harker, a licensed respiratory therapist, noted during deliberations. She, along with several other members, recommended the board “err air on the side of caution right now until we have some better data.”

The board’s discussion followed an update from Carteret County Health Director Nina Oliver, who informed officials COVID-19 cases were on the rise.

“I don’t have numbers, exact numbers … however, what I can say is what we’re currently seeing is more than likely Delta,” she confirmed.

As of Wednesday, Carteret County health officials reported 100 active cases of COVID-19 in the area, with 14 in the Beaufort zip code, 28516. New cases and hospitalizations have been generally increasing in recent weeks.

Commissioner Ann Carter said she preferred to return to in-person business, but would agree with the rest of the board’s prerogative.

“I’m going to be the odd man out, I’m ready to get back to being in-person meetings,” she said. “We all go everywhere there are people who are vaccinated or not vaccinated. … I think that you get a better communication when you’re in person.”

Ahead of the discussion, staff developed a proposal to facilitate the return to in-person meetings for all Beaufort public bodies. Under the proposal, all panels would meet in the town train depot at the corner of Broad and Pollock streets, and with physical distancing restrictions, 25 members of the public could attend. The seating would be first come, first served, and unvaccinated individuals would be asked to wear a mask or participate remotely via livestream.

“They would not have to show vaccination record, we are just requiring them to wear a mask if they have not been vaccinated, we’re not going to check any cards. It would be the honor system, so to speak,” town clerk Allen Coleman said. “If you have symptoms, then of course don’t come.”

A hybrid option that would allow board members to participate in person and remotely would cost the town roughly $20,000, he informed the board.

Currently, only the board of commissioners’ regular meetings are livestreamed to the public via Facebook.

Instead of moving August’s meeting to in-person, commissioners decided to review the subject again this week.

“We can reassess every meeting until we decide what’s right,” Commissioner John Hagle recommended.

In the meantime, some town business has returned to normal. After staff closed town hall at 701 Front St. in March 2020, much of the building’s lobby and entrances were remodeled. It reopened to the public in May after several construction delays.

Beginning Monday, the town will implement new COVID restrictions requiring all staff and visitors at town facilities to wear masks.

In other action at the July 26 work session, the board:

  • Received updates on several ongoing projects around town, including curbside parking spaces and paving work, from town engineer Greg Meshaw.
  • Heard an update from Police Chief Paul Burdette on the coming introduction of body cameras for all officers.
  • Agreed to place consideration of outstanding meeting minutes and a budget amendment to carry over funds from projects and purchases not completed last fiscal year on the consent agenda for the board’s Monday meeting.
  • Discussed water rate options for customers in Eastman Creek Landing.
  • Unanimously approved a final plat to subdivide a 1.11-acre lot into four single-family homes at Palmetto Plantation at Olde Beaufort Village, with a bond amount for infrastructure at $70,656.67.
  • Approved a renewed contract for routine maintenance of the town’s elevated water tanks with Southern Corrosion Inc. of Roanoke Rapids through 2026. The annual cost will be $24,712 for 2021, and then increase to $27,194 annually for the subsequent years of the contract.
  • Unanimously agreed to purchase a pumper truck for Fire Station No. 2 for $560,000. As part of the vote, the board agreed to financing terms of 1.38% for five years from Truist. The down payment and debt service will be paid by Carteret County, using revenues from that fire tax district.

The board also agreed to consider the following items at its Aug. 9 meeting:

  • A quasi-judicial hearing for a special-use permit application for a gas and service station at 1550 Lennoxville Road.
  • A public hearing to rezone 100 Fairview Drive and 1310 Live Oak St. from B-1 (business) district to TCA (townhome, condominiums and apartments).
  • Formally accepting the design of the Beaufort Garden Club’s “Menhaden Melody” sculpture planned for Topsail Park. The board is also set to make a recommendation on the height of the sculpture’s base.
  • A request from the Middle Passage Project to approve a historic marker in Topsail Park commemorating the location and Beaufort as a landing site for enslaved Africans brought to the U.S.; designating Aug. 23 the United Nations’ Day of Remembrance as an annual event; dedication of the park as a memorial park to African Americans; and the possible addition of a memorial monument in the future.

 

Contact Jackie Starkey at 252-726-7081, ext. 225; email jackie@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @jackieccnt.

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