Municipal work continues amid COVID-19 crisis
By Chad Ingram
Like many residents of Haliburton County, political leaders have been working from home amid the coronavirus outbreak, and while regular processes including council meetings have been suspended for the time being, municipal work continues.
“This is an extremely busy time for local government and although meetings are suspended there remains much to do for those involved in ongoing pandemic planning,” Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt wrote in an email to the Times. “Across the county and beyond, decision-makers and their teams – from municipalities to emergency services to health care – are working hard to protect the community.”
On March 17, Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency in Ontario over COVID-19, which Moffatt noted automatically authorizes municipalities to take action under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, which in turn gives municipalities legislated powers to go with that, whether those municipalities declare their own states of emergency or not.
The County of Haliburton and most of its lower-tier townships have declared their own states of emergency, and local councils have suspended their regular meetings, delegating authority to either a team consisting of their mayors and chief administrative officers, or emergency management groups, to make decisions and sign paperwork to allow the day-to-day operations of the municipalities to continue. Each municipality has an emergency management group – sometimes called an emergency operations centre, or emergency operations group – led by its community emergency manager co-ordinator, typically the fire chief, and consisting of some members of council and a cross-section of department heads.
“EOG [emergency operations group] decisions that affect people’s lives are weighed very carefully and there’s certainly no joy in closing recreation centres or restricting landfill use,” Moffatt told the paper. “Closures and restrictions aren’t done ‘just because,’ but in relation to any number of factors over which we may have no control, or over which we need to ensure control. It would take only one change in the supply chain of municipal business to further disrupt services, and these many ‘what if’ possibilities have our full attention.”
Essentially all municipal facilities, including administration offices, in all of the county’s townships have been closed to the public until further notice. Landfills remain open, typically with reduced hours and reduced operations, in terms of what residents are permitted to drop off.
The ongoing situation means keeping a close eye on daily announcements from the federal and provincial governments.
“Almost without exclusion they have implications for municipal government,” said Minden Hills Mayor Brent Devolin, adding that residents can rest assured that while regular processes may not be in place, the wheels of local government are still turning, if not running in overdrive. “Just because they don’t see us, doesn’t mean we’re not doing anything.”
Within the Township of Minden Hills, Devolin said most of the employees who’d normally work out of the township’s administration office are working from home with the assistance of digital technology and that just a few employees, including chief administrative officer/treasurer Lorrie Blanchard, continue to work from the office, which Devolin noted is separated into three distinct zones.
In the roads department,
Devolin explained that workers have been divided into two separate
teams, working from two separate bases, in order to minimize
“We started staggering the time they come in and the time they leave,” he said, adding these measures have now been in place for more than a week. A similar system has been created for employees in the township’s community services department to mitigate the places and times where employees might overlap. While there was a pause in work on the township’s arena project while the provincial government announced what type of work was “essential” or not within Ontario for the time being, Devolin told the paper that work on the construction project was to resume this week.
Staff in Algonquin Highlands have also been working from home as much as possible.
“Staff, too, are working in a challenging environment that changes almost daily, and in a sector deemed ‘exempt’ from the non-essential business shutdown,” Moffatt wrote. “Working from home presents a variety of challenges – not the least of which are reliable cell and broadband signals, and I’m proud of the dedicated AH team that’s juggling the needs of each other, their own families, and the public’s interests.”
“I’m working very closely with the AH CAO who has enormous responsibility not only for the wellbeing of staff but also for the continuity of municipal business – all while the EOG is altering that continuity each time it meets,” Moffatt wrote. “There are many moving pieces to this work, and countless pandemic-related decisions are considered every day.”
The Township of Minden Hills declared a state of emergency on
March 18, and with three states of emergency related to flooding in the
past seven years, and what Devolin said was a near state of emergency
due to a transformer fire at the Minden Hills Hydro One substation in
the summer of 2018, the mayor said the township has learned lessons in
dealing with emergencies.
“Circumstances can happen fast enough that they can get away on you in terms of planning,” Devolin said, emphasizing the township was trying to stay ahead of the curve with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While there were no confirmed cases of the virus within Haliburton County at press time, an assessment centre outside the Haliburton Family Medical Centre was being opened this week.
“There’s no question it’s all exhausting,” Moffatt wrote. “Our antagonist is invisible and we don’t know where, when or how severely it may strike here. These are extraordinary times and if we’re not monitoring the news, we’re talking about it; reviewing the latest information, considering next steps, thinking ahead for the community’s best interests around things like worker exposure, firefighter safety, service levels, community economics, public needs, future workloads, information provision … and so much more.”
Devolin said he’s concerned for the county’s 18,000 year-round residents, many of whom are senior citizens.
“We have a significant at-risk group,” he said, adding that based on infection rates in other countries, before the pandemic is over, it’s likely most county residents will at least know someone affected by the virus, if they don’t contract it themselves.
“There’s not going to be anybody untouched in this county,” he said.
Devolin, who’s been working from his dining room for nearly three weeks, told the paper he hasn’t slept properly during that same time period.
province has granted municipal councils permission to hold virtual
meetings during times of emergency, and both Moffatt and Devolin said
the logistics of implementing electronic meetings were being reviewed,
and Devolin said that ideally, by the end of April, he was hoping
meetings of Minden Hills council could resume electronically.
Along with conferring with members of their emergency management groups, CAOs and updating members of their councils, Devolin and Moffatt have been in regular contact with their county council colleagues.
Haliburton County Warden Liz Danielsen told the Times she appreciates the way community residents are working together to get through this difficult time.
“This truly is an extraordinary and troubling time for us all, but what I continually find most remarkable is how times like this bring us all together and make us stronger,” Danielsen wrote in an email. “I see examples of people working together, answering calls to duty that they would normally never be asked to do; people continuing to volunteer, particularly at our local radio station, people sharing, being innovative and being very brave. I’m grateful to all of the organizations and ad hoc groups that have been offering support, and food and even financial assistance to those in greater need. We have an aging population, many of whom are on a fixed income, who depend on services that may not be available at times like we are experiencing. We could not be without you.”
Danielsen explained the county’s
emergency management group has been meeting three times per week, some
members via teleconference, and that county officials have also been
teleconferencing with a pandemic task force consisting of health care
professionals throughout the region.
“Will we get it right? I think we’re as prepared as we can be, and where we fall short, plans are in place to meet the need to the greatest extent we are capable as things progress,” Danielsen wrote. “We’ll make mistakes along the way, but it’s all part of the learning curve, and I believe all of our emergency control groups have caught stride and are prepared. I’m hoping that we’ll all hold off on finger pointing until the dust settles and we can debrief and improve our emergency plans. Now is the time to stand together and support one another.”
Danielsen, Devolin and Moffatt all strongly encouraged residents to abide by directives to practice social distancing and self-isolation as much as possible.
“It is frustrating to see that some people, albeit in fairly small numbers, thank goodness, seem to throw caution to the wind and insist on ignoring all the signs or professional advice and charge forward without thought of the risk they bring to themselves and others,” Danielsen wrote. “It is ironic that our safety lies in staying apart from each other when we need each other the most, and I hope those careless few will finally come to understand that.”
“In uncharted waters like these, common sense, kindness and patience are our best protection,” Moffatt told the paper. “I’m thankful for the tremendous support extended by the public thus far; and appreciate the continued messages and emails. While we’re working hard at our roles, I ask that you work hard on yours: make the tough choices, do the right thing, think of others. Hunker down. Don’t hoard. Avoid unnecessary outings; and follow the public health recommendations so we can all look back with confidence in having made the best choices for the place we all love.”
Devolin said that residents should live each day as though they have the virus.
“If by your actions, you can protect yourself and others, just do it,” he said. “Assume you have it, and that anyone you come in contact with, you can give it to them, and they can give it you.”