City Hall: Philadelphia City Council Responds to COVID-19

Every other chair in the audience section of city council is blocked with a piece of paper that reads, “by request of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, please do not sit in this chair, social distancing is to reduce exposure to COVID-19 coronavirus”
Chairs at a recent City Council meeting with a note from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health about social distancing measures due to coronavirus. (Photo credit: Marissa Howe/Philadelphia Neighborhoods).

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Philadelphia City Council implemented measures to encourage social distancing and reduce the number of people present in close proximity during its weekly meeting on March 12. 

While the fire code allows for 184 occupants, seating was halved to create space between members of the audience, council staff, and press.

Five people sit in the audience section of city council. Every other chair is blocked.
Members of the audience who took their seats before a city council meeting follow new seating rules to encourage social distancing. 

Only one staffer for each council member was allowed into the meeting, and four members of the press were allowed at the press table, which usually seats around eight people. 

These efforts came two days after the confirmation of the first case of COVID-19 in Philadelphia on March 10.

City Council President Darrell Clarke clarified that these restrictions were made after consultation with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.  

“We are clearly in some difficult times, to some degree unprecedented, so we’re asking everybody to please be cautious, please wash your hands, and please follow the science and the recommendations of the health professionals,” Clarke said. 

Council President Darrell Clarke stands and speaks into a microphone.
Council President Darrell Clarke announced new restrictions for those attending city council meetings. 

Councilmembers typically shake hands with the individual who opens the weekly council meeting with a prayer, but most councilmembers instead greeted Minister Reshaun Carlton of the Church of Christian Compassion with an elbow bump.

Councilmember Brian O’Neill greeted Minister Reshaun Carlton with an elbow bump.
Councilmember Brian O’Neill greeted Minister Reshaun Carlton with an elbow bump.

Councilmember Helen Gym introduced a resolution calling on law enforcement and utility companies to impose a temporary moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut-offs during the COVID-19 outbreak. She said the effort had the support of the Philadelphia Sheriff’s office and noted that other cities and municipalities had taken similar steps. 

“We as local leaders have to understand that our public health is also tied to economic security,” Gym said. 

She said these efforts would help ensure vulnerable populations are protected during a public health emergency. 

“Over the past several weeks, cities and municipalities have had to grapple with things that should really be the purview of the federal government,” Gym said. “And it is extraordinarily unfortunate that the federal government has chosen instead to peddle in untruths to mask a significant amount of incompetency.”

Councilmember Helen Gym speaks into a microphone.
Councilmember Helen Gym spoke about her resolution.

Gym said these measures would help ensure fewer people will be homeless and seeking shelter during the pandemic, which could put them at greater risk for contracting and spreading the virus. When asked about the existing homeless population in Philadelphia, Gym said the City has work to do and it is consulting with other municipalities. 

Gym, one of two Asian members of the city council, also admonished federal leaders for their response to the spread of COVID-19 and said xenophobia has impeded a proper response to the virus. 

“I do want to specifically note that the xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiments exhibited by the occupant of the White House, particularly in reference to the coronavirus disease and COVID-19, has been appalling and is untrue and results in people not having appropriate information or getting appropriate testing as needed,” she said. 

Councilmember Kendra Brooks, who clarified that her broken voice was caused by laryngitis, introduced a resolution calling on the city to create a plan to support workers in the service and health care industries. 

Future city council meetings and hearings have been postponed until further notice because of the spread of the virus.

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