While the Delta variant continues to course through the Auburn community and hospitalizations remain high at East Alabama Medical Center, the City Council is reluctant to shift back to virtual meetings, according to Mayor Ron Anders.
"It's my belief that the majority of the Council do not want to go there right now if we can provide a safe meeting in-person," said Anders in an interview with the Villager on Monday. "That's a very fluid situation we're watching. We're watching what's going on. I think we have to be very adaptive right now in the world we live in."
In August, the City put social distancing measures back in place for in-person Council meetings, and encouraged attendees to wear masks. Anders, who has recovered from a bout of Covid-19 and been vaccinated, asked city staff to reinstall Plexiglas dividers between Council members on the dais as well.
"We've tried to make it safe," he said. "We'll just have to continue to watch and see how this develops, make those decisions, and it is a decision that we have the liberty to make because the governor has allowed us to do that with her recent (health) order."
Anders and the City Council have received some criticism for not speaking about the pandemic over the course of the recent surge in cases and hospitalizations in the area.
"This is the fourth-consecutive Council meeting that I have attended, and the Council has not yet addressed Covid-19," said Auburn resident Mike Halperin, who is a personal friend of Anders, at last Tuesday's Council meeting.
Anders mentioned a pilot program that City Manager Megan McGowen Crouch also detailed at the meeting, where the City's Economic Development Department and Industrial Development Board has worked to support local industry with testing and vaccines to keep the workforce healthy.
"There's been an intentional effort with our industries to make sure that they were offered an opportunity to get their employees vaccinated," said Anders, who added that he continues to encourage residents to evaluate whether a vaccine is right for them and to talk with their doctors or pharmacists about the issue. "We've got to keep banging the drum."
Anders added that his belief is that the percentage of eligible residents having received the vaccine is greater within the city of Auburn than outside the city limits in Lee County and in surrounding counties.
"I really believe Auburn's percentages are much better," he said. "I believe that the people of Auburn are well-informed, and they have made these decision on behalf of themselves and their family, and that our numbers, if they were just city numbers, would look a lot different than county numbers or state numbers. That's just my belief as mayor of this community."
According the Alabama Department of Health data, about 74,000 Lee County residents have received at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose, as of Thursday morning. About 62,000 people have completed their vaccine series.
According the 2020 Census data recently released, Lee County has just over 174,000 residents, almost 6 percent of whom are under the age of 5 and not eligible to receive the vaccine yet. About 21 percent of Lee County's population are 18 years old or younger, with 5- to 11-year-olds also not eligible yet to receive a vaccine.
The recent surge in cases and hospitalizations also prompted the City to hit the pause button on holding meetings for Auburn 2040, which had already been delayed a year because of the pandemic. Anders would like to get the Auburn 2040 process back on track as soon as possible.
"It's my hope and my desire that we can start that back up before the holidays," said Anders, who noted that he had received good feedback from the initial meetings held in the process this summer. "It's my desire that we can get 2040 back on the train and get back on the tracks again. And as soon as that's available to us, we'll do it.
"What I don't want is this dragging too far into next summer."
Anders said the main reason he wants the process concluded sooner rather than later is because 2022 is a Municipal Election year.
"This should be an independent process, and independent effort by our citizens that shouldn't be impacted about who's running for office, and that's one of the motivating factors in trying to get this finished in enough time that it is not impacted by that."
Anders jokingly admitted that he has even had discussions about renaming the effort the Auburn 2045 plan since the process has now been delayed twice and will likely stretch into 2022.
"We're on hanging on there believing that there's still going to be a window that's going to open for us soon, he said.