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Members of city boards, commissions and committees will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or test negative within 24 hours in advance of any in-person meetings under a resolution approved Feb. 14 by the Evanston City Council.

With the action, officials have brought three major groups in the city – employees, elected officials and now the mostly citizen volunteers who serve on committees – under some kind of protocol.

The requirement for boards, commissions and committees is similar to an action approved by the City Council at its Jan. 24 meeting, requiring council members be vaccinated or have a negative test result within 24 hours in order to attend in-person meetings.

The city has more than 30 active citizen boards, commissions and committees that, taken together, meet on a nearly daily basis, ranging from the Animal Welfare Board to the Utilities Commission. The citizens who serve on those groups largely volunteer their time and play an important role in shaping the policies and direction of the city.

At the Feb. 14 meeting, Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, proposed that the 24-hour requirement should be changed to within a week of participating in an in-person meeting. It was Reid who recommended at the previous council meeting that the vaccine or testing mandate be extended to include the city’s various panels.

Reid said the longer time period would allow those tested to take a polymerase chain reaction test as opposed to a less accurate non-PCR (antigen) test. Under the 24-hour requirement, Reid noted that a person who serves on both a committee as well as a subcommittee of the same group “would have to test twice within that week rather than just testing once, which is the standard for staff.”

He asked that the week standard apply across the board, to also include council members. At the Jan. 24 meeting, council members had passed a resolution applying to themselves, requiring proof a vaccination or a negative test 24 hours before an in-person council meeting.

Mayor Daniel Biss pointed out that staff members, unlike council members and members of boards, are expected “to come in on a daily basis, be in touch with folks on a daily basis” and said to have them test every day would be “extreme” in their cases.

Council member Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, spoke in support of keeping the 24-hour testing requirement.

“I guess I’m concerned that if folks are tested a week out and come into the meeting five days later when they’ve been potentially exposed, are we doing all we can to make our board and commission members feel comfortable, given that they’re volunteers, some may have other health concerns?” Fleming said.

“We already have a hard time finding a quorum,” she added. “I get that 24 hours is a pain, but I also get that, you know, people are making a choice not to get vaccinated. So if you’re going to come and be around other people I think it does not hurt you to get a test 24 hours before so that the people you’re engaging with also feel safe with your participation.”

Reid, along with Council member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, said pushing back the vaccine or testing requirement to seven days before an in-person meeting could also cover council members who are attending committee meetings and not council meetings.

Reid and Burns were the only Council members who declined to respond to a RoundTable survey of Council members last year asking whether they had been vaccinated. Asked again last month, neither answered the question.

24-hour tests can catch recent infections: HHS Director

Biss asked Ike Ogbo, the city’s Health and Human Services Director, whether he had any information to shed light on the week versus 24-hour mandate.

Ogbo said a test within 24 hours can “capture any recent infections that an individual might have prior to coming into that meeting which, if that individual tests positive, that individual won’t attend that meeting.”

“I know that the argument has been, ‘OK, staff are required to submit weekly COVID tests,’ but that’s an entirely different environment. … They might not be in confined spaces, they might be out in the community keeping their social distance,” he said. “Whereas in a meeting setting, which might be a bit confined, you’re more inclined to be in close proximity to individuals where you can spread the virus.”

Reid argued against that rationale. “I hear what you’re saying, but our staff are in this room [council chambers for the meeting] with us, just as close to us as anyone else,” he said. “And that happens in the committee room settings. We have city staff who are able to detain folks and put them in a car with them and, you know, similar effects. So there are many instances where our staff members, just like a volunteer committee member, are in close proximity to folks.

“I think having the rules apply across the board for anybody who is engaged with business with the city – whether you’re an employee or a volunteer or, you know, a semi-volunteer council [member] – all of those having a uniform set of rules makes sense.”

Council members voted 6-3 against Reid’s proposal to move the requirement for a vaccine or a negative test from 24 hours to a week before an in-person meeting for members of boards, commissions and committees.

Council members Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, and Burns voted with Reid in supporting his amendment to change the time requirement.

Council members then unanimously supported the vaccine and/or test requirement to apply to boards, committees and commissions.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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