A bid to continue online council meetings until after 7 May has been rejected by the High Court.
Emergency legislation was passed in the Commons last year allowing councils to meet online due to coronavirus, but it ends the day after local elections.
Hertfordshire County Council applied to extend measures but it was dismissed.
Judges said primary legislation would be needed to extend the use of online meetings and it was not for the courts to set that legislation.
Chairman of the Local Government Association James Jamieson said the ruling was "very disappointing".
"Councils, by law, have to hold annual meetings within 21 days following local elections so many will now have to use very large external venues to allow all members of the council to meet in person," he said.
"Councils want to continue to have powers to hold online and hybrid meetings even when restrictions have been lifted."
Lawyers in local government, along with Hertfordshire County Council, brought a bid against the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to the High Court to have the emergency legislation extended.
The MHCLG was "supportive in principle" of the claim, arguing it could be met by the court giving its opinion on what the words "meeting", "place" and "present" mean in the existing law.
Lawyers for Hertfordshire County Council argued that the word "place" could include metaphorical places such as a website.
But Dame Victoria Sharp and Mr Justice Chamberlain dismissed the claim and concluded that primary legislation would be needed to extend the use of online meetings.
"The decision whether to permit some or all local authority meetings to be conducted remotely, and if so, how and subject to what safeguards, involves difficult policy choices on which there is likely to be a range of competing views," the judges said.
"These choices have been made legislatively for Scotland by the Scottish Parliament and for Wales by the Senedd. In England, they are for Parliament, not the courts."
Minister Luke Hall previously told local authorities the government was under too much pressure to fit in legislation to allow them to continue.
A spokeswoman for MHCLG said: "We are grateful for the efforts of councils to ensure meetings could continue remotely over the past year.
"Councils will need to return to face-to-face meetings after 6 May and should continue to prepare accordingly."