By Sue Tiffin
Both Algonquin Highlands and Minden Hills townships responded on Monday to a late-Friday recommendation from the medical officer of health to help slow a surge in COVID-19 cases spiking in part due to the highly-transmissible Omicron variant.
On Dec. 17, the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District health unit sent a letter of instruction asking employers to move employees to work remotely, if they hadn’t already been doing so and if they were able to do so.
“I am worried that we are already seeing a surge of cases in advance of the holiday season” said Dr. Natalie Bocking, medical officer of health for the local health unit. “Our goal is to reduce the number of people working in close proximity to help halt any further spread. Broad measures are required as there is no one sector that is causing this sharp increase in local cases.”
Bocking recommended that all employers move employees to work remotely, limit onsite interactions including conducting meetings virtually, and continue with COVID-19 protocols for those on-site, including staggering lunch breaks and wearing tightly fitting masks.
Algonquin Highlands council met at 9 a.m. on Monday morning, having prepared to meet prior to the letter of instruction being released to discuss possibly restricting access to township buildings. Council agreed that staff that could work from home, should work from home, and that township buildings should be accessed by those with appointments only, and closed to general public access.
“As for the measures to restrict people coming into the office, I think that’s absolutely the way to go, myself,” said Councillor Jennifer Dailloux. “Society is more than familiar with these sorts of measures now, has come to expect it. This is a variant that seems to pass all sorts of barriers that others weren’t passing before, and I think it’s in the best interest of our staff, certainly to just revert back to what society is used to until the next step, whatever that might be.”
“I agree with you,” said Mayor Carol Moffatt. “There are not hundreds of people going to the township office every day. We went to extreme lengths to successfully move so much of our business online where possible, I think as you note, we can shift back. I think we’ve built that resilience into that entire discussion.”
Deputy Mayor Liz Danielsen, who is also county warden, said the county’s emergency control group had discussed people working from home if that is possible, with those leaving for holiday vacation taking their equipment and work supplies with them. They had not, however, agreed to make another emergency declaration – the last state of emergency being declared over in August.
“We’re going to continue to revisit that as more information comes out, because I’ve got a feeling this is going to move quickly,” said Danielsen. Councillors noted the emergency control group can meet quickly, within an hour, whereas council must give 24 hours public notice minimum, before meeting.
While councillors said they were prepared for employees to work from home and buildings to be closed this time, having been through a surge in cases requiring restrictions on movement during the pandemic before, Danielsen expressed her frustration with lack of further guidance from the provincial government.
“It’s unfortunate that the province does not come out with more clear direction, they’ve put it in the hands of each of the health units so we’re going to have different situations in every different health unit area,” she said. “It just makes it confusing for people.”
“That’s a very good point, we’ll have to keep our eye on what Simcoe-Muskoka is doing in terms of our relationship with Lake of Bays and Dorset, because we did have some challenges previously, when the province was doing the colour coding and Simcoe-Muskoka was in the red zone, and we were in yellow or orange, and yet we have shared assets,” said Moffatt.
With the holidays approaching, Moffatt suggested giving employees the choice of working from home this week or not given that COVID-19 protocols continue to be in place within township offices.
“Instead of pulling the fire alarm and sending everyone home in a hurry, I think those staff that are working this week, it would seem reasonable to let them gather what they need and go as they need to go,” she said. “I think it’s fair to rely on those folks who work in that space to govern and manage themselves as they see. If somebody wants to pack up and go today then I guess they could pack up and go today. Would council support that, sort of letting folks manage themselves instead of us or anybody else saying you have to do this? These are all grown adults who’ve managed themselves in a shared workspace for over a year, so I think they can manage their own time.”
Council agreed to letting staff move to work-from-home when they were ready and comfortable to do so this week, and said township offices should be moved to appointment only immediately, as provincial restrictions regarding capacity went into effect on Dec. 19.
Council agreed to implement measures as had been done in the past, scheduling meetings with township staff by appointment with preferred contact by email or telephone.
“This should just put it in place unless anything changes and we’ll have to just wait and see what happens there, because as we know it’s a continually shifting landscape,” said Moffatt.
Later on Monday afternoon at 3:30 p.m., Minden Hills township distributed a press release noting service reductions based on the same recommendation by Bocking and the HKPRD health unit.
“Township facilities are closed to the public, until further notice,” read the press release. “The township’s first priority is for the protection of the public and staff.”
As a result of the closures, scheduled in-person meetings with staff from all municipal departments are available on an as-needed basis and by appointment only and building inspections will occur on a case-by-case basis. The Agnes Jamieson Gallery and Minden Hills Cultural Centre and the gymnasium and walking track at the S.G. Nesbitt Memorial Arena and community centre are closed.
Landfills remain open with regular levels of service being provided at this time and building and planning applications will continue to be processed. The arena ice pad remains available for booking. Public skating and ice programs are limited to a maximum of 25 participants.