PROVIDENCE — A coalition of open government groups on Tuesday called for Governor Daniel J. McKee to reinstate an executive order allowing remote meetings of public bodies amid a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Rhode Island had more COVID cases per capita than any other state over the past seven days, and the president of the Rhode Island chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians has warned that the state’s health care system “is currently collapsing,” the coalition said.
Calling it “a matter of great urgency for open government,” the ACCESS/RI coalition urged McKee, a Cumberland Democrat, to reinstate an order that would require live-streaming of public meetings and remote public participation.
“Many residents of the state – in recognition of the large number of breakthrough infections being caused by Omicron – are legitimately and understandably reluctant to physically attend public meetings,” the coalition wrote in a letter to McKee. “Particularly for the state’s large elderly and immunocompromised population, even being masked and fully vaccinated is no guarantee of protection in crowded meetings in indoor settings.”
ACCESS/RI includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, Common Cause Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Press Association, and the New England First Amendment Coalition.
The coalition said it had written to McKee in September, urging him to reinstate an executive order that had been in effect throughout the pandemic, until June. But McKee ignored the request, so the Open Meetings Act’s requirement for in-person attendance of all members of public bodies has been in effect for five months now. While some public bodies continued offering remote meeting access to the public, most have not, ACCESS/RI said.
Now, the need for reinstating the executive order is even more urgent, the coalition said, citing the Omicron variant and “the havoc” it is causing in state’s healthcare system. “We therefore vigorously reiterate our call for a return to a hybrid/remote public meeting process via executive order,” the letter said.
In response, McKee’s office issued a statement Tuesday, urging legislators to take up a bill aimed a providing greater virtual access to public meetings through July 2023.
“The governor is fully committed to transparency and open government, especially during the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” McKee’s office said. “At the same time, we do have a three branch system of government, and the governor has been committed to using his unilateral, executive authority in a limited capacity. “
The Department of Business Regulation has proposed legislation that would amend the Open Meetings Act to provide for greater virtual access to public meetings until July 1, 2023, and the House has already passed that bill, McKee’s office said. “We would encourage the Senate to take up that bill as one of their first acts in January and send the bill to the governor’s desk for signature.”
The coalition noted that Rhode Island is facing major challenges while also receiving a massive influx of federal funds.
“The need for public oversight of the activities of public bodies is at its zenith,” ACCESS/RI said. “Yet many members of the public with a strong interest in watching and participating in government meetings find themselves, for genuine health and safety reasons, shut out of the process as public bodies grapple with those challenges and opportunities.”
The group noted that McKee last week announced a universal mask mandate for venues of assembly and businesses with a capacity of 250 people or more. Businesses with a capacity of 250 or less — including restaurants, retail stores, and places of worship — are able to have patrons show a proof of vaccination to opt out of wearing a mask. The mandate began Monday.
“Your latest, lengthy executive order is a pointed reminder that we remain in a state of emergency,” ACCESS/RI said. “Under the circumstances, we trust you will agree that an executive order is both warranted and needed to ensure that the goal of the Open Meetings Act – to safeguard the ability of residents to ‘be advised of and aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy’ – is met in reality, not just theory.”