The town board receives comments from a member of the public via Zoom during its meeting on March 29, 2020. Video screenshot

Meetings of the Riverhead Town board after Jan. 4 will be held virtually because of the recent surge in coronavirus cases, Supervisor Yvette Aguiar announced at Thursday’s work session.

The decision comes as New York State’s and Suffolk County’s COVID-19 case numbers are reaching record highs on a daily basis. New York reported 74,207 confirmed new cases Wednesday, and a test positivity rate of 16.2% on a 7-day average, a spike officials attribute to a winter surge and the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus. Suffolk County reported 5,772 new cases Wednesday and a test positivity rate of near 25% —19.2% on a 7-day average. There have been 302 new lab-confirmed cases in the Town of Riverhead since Christmas Eve, according to Suffolk County health department data.

Aguiar also canceled plans to have an inauguration at the Suffolk Theater because of the surge. The event will be held in Town Hall Sunday with limited in-person attendance. Aguiar also implemented a mask mandate for town buildings on Dec. 13.

Aguiar said in a call this afternoon that the Jan. 4 meeting will still happen in person. “We’re doing it [in person] on the fourth because it’s our organizational meeting. There’s a lot of resolutions,” she said.

She also said virtual meetings will be optional for other boards and committees of the town, like the Planning Board, the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Industrial Development Agency.

“We’re going to recommend that they do. But if a board is meeting and two are present, and three want to be on Zoom, they can do that as long as they social distance,” she said.

Public participation for the meetings will be available via the teleconferencing app Zoom. The town used Zoom for its meetings after pandemic shutdowns began until the summer, when cases of the virus were relatively low and the state of emergency was lifted. Aguiar said the change was made to return meetings to the way they operated before the pandemic.

The decision to end Zoom participation received blowback from some residents and Councilwoman Catherine Kent, who said the availability of teleconferencing allowed people with busier schedules the opportunity to voice comments to the board. The town reinstated Zoom participation for the public soon after, but only for public hearings.

When asked if town buildings would be closed to the public like they were during last year’s shutdown, Aguiar said access will be limited, but buildings not closed. “It’s a fluid situation. And if anything has to change, we will change it,” she said.

“If people want to come into town hall they can as they have been before on a very limited basis,” she said.

When asked if the town’s emergency operations team — which Aguiar said had a meeting on Wednesday to discuss the response to the coronavirus surge — had a specific threshold when buildings would be closed down, Aguiar did not answer directly and said the town is not at the “level” to where town buildings need to be closed. “We’re not going to that level until the governor goes to that level or we find it necessary,” she said.

Other East End towns are changing how they operate their meetings to reflect the surge. Shelter Island suspended in-person public meetings on Dec. 21, while both Southampton Town and East Hampton Town have been conducting their meetings through Zoom through September. Brookhaven Town’s board meetings are in-person and do not have an option of virtual interaction from the public.

The Suffolk County Legislature is also allowing both legislators and citizens to participate in their meetings through Zoom.

Aguiar said she will reevaluate the virtual meeting policy on Jan. 15.

John McAuliff, a vocal resident, had brought up safety concerns of the coronavirus surge as the positivity rate grew through the past few months, including urging officials to wears masks to slow the spread of the virus requirement, and was happy when the town updated the policy earlier this month. He said the town should implement either a vaccine or testing requirement to attend public meetings. Aguiar has stated opposition to COVID-19 vaccine requirements to enter buildings.

McAuliff was also an advocate for public participation through Zoom and said he hopes it remains a permanent fixture even after coronavirus cases fall.

“I think that it would be a shame when this round of COVID is over if she retreated to the old system again, which narrows the kinds of people who can join in conversation,” he said.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: [email protected]