A man speaks during a virtual meeting shown on a desktop computer screen.
In this BDN file photo from March 2020, Waldo County Emergency Management Agency Director Dale Rowley spoke virtually to Belfast city councilors. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — After more than two years of holding meetings virtually because of the pandemic, the Belfast City Council will return to City Hall next week.

The resumption of in-person gatherings comes as a relief to councilors like Mary Mortier, who said Tuesday that there was a steep Zoom learning curve for councilors, city hall staff and the public.

“You can’t see them clearly, you’re struggling to hear them clearly. It’s just not the same. When you’re in chambers together in person, I feel it’s a far more productive conversation,” Mortier said.

The Zoom meetings began in March 2020 and, with the exception of two or three in-person meetings during the COVID lull last summer, have continued until now. The councilors decided at last week’s regular meeting to return to the in-person meetings. They believe they are among the last municipalities in the area to make the switch.

The in-person meetings will begin with the regular council meeting scheduled for Tuesday.

Mortier said that it felt to her that something important was lost at times in the migration to the virtual world. Members of the community sometimes struggled to use Zoom in order to speak up during public hearings or the open to the public portion of the meetings.

“In one sense, you lose part of the democratic process that happens when you’re in person,” she said. “It’s sort of like the difference between a verbal conversation with somebody and an email. It’s not the same.”

Going forward, meetings will be hybrid, although only those who are invited to present will be able to do so over Zoom. If members of the public wish to speak, they can do so in person at meetings or can send emails or letters to the council, according to city hall staff.

Because of social distancing, there will only be room for a couple of chairs for the public to sit in the council chambers and masks are optional. Overflow crowds will be directed to sit in another conference room in the building, where they will broadcast the meeting.

As always, it is possible to watch the council meetings live on Belfast Community Television or through the city’s website.

Some councilors are still concerned about COVID-19, though. On Tuesday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 569 new cases and two additional deaths.

Councilor Brenda Bonneville agrees that it’s important to return to in-person meetings, but the rising COVID case numbers are making her nervous.

“Last week I was wanting to get back just because of how we interact with each other,” she said. “Now, it’s like oh, wow, things are ticking up again. I’m a little more mixed. I’m wanting to go back, but today I’m feeling cautious and it’s quite possible that I’ll go in with my mask on.”