With the Covid virus likely to linger in its various forms, the City of Missoula is taking steps to return to in-person meetings while retaining a virtual presence.

The hybrid model was used successfully by Missoula County earlier last year, at least until a new strain of Covid forced them back to virtual meetings only. The city has been considering its own hybrid approach and could launch it this year if conditions allow.

“We've developed some metrics with the Health Department as well as Missoula County to give us a go, no-go as far as getting together in person,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “We have public health to consider. Over the last two years, we've learned there is tremendous unpredictability associated with this virus and this pandemic.”

The City Council last held an in-person meeting in April 2020 and has worked remotely ever since. Attendance among council members has remained strong, however, and participation hasn't waned under a virtual format.

But Engen agreed that working in a virtual environment with 12 council members can be challenging at times. And with four new council members now part of the process, camaraderie can be lacking.

“This Zoom environment is challenging, but it's practical and for the time being, it's effective,” Engen said. “I think we all recognize that I look forward to a time when we all can be in a room together and learn a little more about one another, and develop a relationship so we're sharing ideas a little more freely and outside the confines of little boxes on the screen.”

The city discussed a potential hybrid format last December but said spatial constrains could bring new challenges as Municipal Court moves into City Council chambers on a temporary basis.

Once the court returns to its new location after construction is finished, guidance from local epidemiology could determine if City Council returns to its chambers and begins holding hybrid meetings.

“We're going to continue to figure out a way forward through the pandemic,” said City Council President Gwen Jones. “We seem to be shifting into a new stage of the pandemic where we're going to be having to figure out life going forward as we take it into account. There are lots of shifting sands in that scenario, but we're navigating forward as a community and as local government, trying to figure out a way forward as a new normal.”