Rochester City Council meetings will shift to a hybrid model in May.

After months of meeting strictly online, council members will have the option to meet in council chambers starting May 3.

Members and city staff will maintain the option to attend meetings remotely, but it will be the first time four newly elected council members will be able to participate in an in-person meeting.

It also means the council’s third strategic-planning session on May 10 will include more face-to-face discussion.

“Having that more in-person provides a different opportunity to have this conversation, because it’s very difficult to do online,” City Administrator Alison Zelms told the council Monday during its second online strategic-planning session.

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Moderator Heather Worthington, of St. Paul-based Worthington Advisors LLC, also pointed to the challenge of meeting online. She said workable priorities require finding common ground, which has been difficult during pandemic-related restrictions.

“That’s a really, really difficult time to try to do trust building and relationship building,” she said of online meetings.

The council and city staff won’t immediately return to pre-pandemic practices.

"There is some concern with non-vaccinated people being in the room, in a closed room for an extended period of time," Mayor Kim Norton said.

Zelms said it is expected that anyone attending the meeting follow established protocols and remain safe, but there is no ability to require the council members or staff who attend to be vaccinated.

She said some council or staff members have indicated a desire to attend the meeting in person, even though the first meeting would fall between the two required vaccine doses.

"That would be that individual's choice," she said.

Norton asked council members to inform each other of their vaccination status and decisions regarding whether to attend.

"If people aren't willing to say, I think that could affect other people's willingness to participate," she said, indicating that she and others might only be interested in returning once everyone has been vaccinated.

Variant COVID-19 strains circulating in the community point to a need to maintain adequate physical distancing practices during the meetings, so council members and city staff will be prioritized for in-person attendance.

The city’s COVID-19 risk meter remains at "high" for the seventh week, since dipping to "moderate" briefly in March.

The limited capacity of meetings means in-person participation for city residents will not be an option. Residents have been able to participate in council meetings through online and phone connections.

Instructions on submitting public comments and connecting to meetings are available in agendas posted at www.rochestermn.gov/agendas.

Meetings in May include regular council meetings at 6 p.m. May 3 and May 17, as well as council study sessions at 3:30 p.m. May 3, May 10, May 17 and May 24.

City staff said the format of council meetings is expected to be evaluated regularly and adjusted as needed, with a goal of reintroducing in-person public options.