By Chad Ingram
Like many residents of Haliburton County political leaders have beenworking from home amid the coronavirus outbreak and while regularprocesses including council meetings have been suspended for the timebeing 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” AlgonquinHighlands Mayor Carol Moffatt wrote in an email to the Times . “Acrossthe county and beyond decision-makers and their teams – frommunicipalities to emergency services to health care – are working hardto protect the community.”
On March 17 Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency in Ontario over COVID-19 which Moffatt notedautomatically authorizes municipalities to take action under theEmergency Management and Civil Protection Act which in turn givesmunicipalities legislated powers to go with that whether thosemunicipalities declare their own states of emergency or not.
TheCounty of Haliburton and most of its lower-tier townships have declaredtheir own states of emergency and local councils have suspended theirregular meetings delegating authority to either a team consisting oftheir mayors and chief administrative officers or emergency managementgroups to make decisions and sign paperwork to allow the day-to-dayoperations of the municipalities to continue. Each municipality has anemergency management group – sometimes called an emergency operationscentre or emergency operations group – led by its community emergencymanager co-ordinator typically the fire chief and consisting of somemembers of council and a cross-section of department heads.
“EOG[emergency operations group] decisions that affect people’s lives areweighed very carefully and there’s certainly no joy in closingrecreation centres or restricting landfill use” Moffatt told the paper. “Closures and restrictions aren’t done ‘just because’ but in relationto any number of factors over which we may have no control or overwhich we need to ensure control. It would take only one change in thesupply chain of municipal business to further disrupt services andthese many ‘what if’ possibilities have our full attention.”
Essentially all municipal facilities including administration offices in all ofthe county’s townships have been closed to the public until furthernotice. Landfills remain open typically with reduced hours and reducedoperations 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 restassured that while regular processes may not be in place the wheels oflocal government are still turning if not running in overdrive. “Justbecause 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’dnormally work out of the township’s administration office are workingfrom home with the assistance of digital technology and that just a fewemployees including chief administrative officer/treasurer LorrieBlanchard continue to work from the office which Devolin noted isseparated into three distinct zones.
In the roads departmentDevolin explained that workers have been divided into two separateteams working from two separate bases in order to minimizeinteraction.
“We started staggering the time they come in and thetime they leave” he said adding these measures have now been in placefor 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 announcedwhat type of work was “essential” or not within Ontario for the timebeing Devolin told the paper that work on the construction project wasto 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 almostdaily and in a sector deemed ‘exempt’ from the non-essential businessshutdown” Moffatt wrote. “Working from home presents a variety ofchallenges – not the least of which are reliable cell and broadbandsignals and I’m proud of the dedicated AH team that’s juggling theneeds of each other their own families and the public’s interests.”
“I’m working very closely with the AH CAO who has enormous responsibilitynot only for the wellbeing of staff but also for the continuity ofmunicipal business – all while the EOG is altering that continuity eachtime it meets” Moffatt wrote. “There are many moving pieces to thiswork and countless pandemic-related decisions are considered everyday.”
The Township of Minden Hills declared a state of emergency onMarch 18 and with three states of emergency related to flooding in thepast seven years and what Devolin said was a near state of emergencydue to a transformer fire at the Minden Hills Hydro One substation inthe summer of 2018 the mayor said the township has learned lessons indealing with emergencies.
“Circumstances can happen fast enough that they can get away on you in terms of planning” Devolin saidemphasizing the township was trying to stay ahead of the curve withregard to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While there were no confirmed cases of the virus within Haliburton County at press time an assessmentcentre outside the Haliburton Family Medical Centre was being openedthis week.
“There’s no question it’s all exhausting” Moffatt wrote. “Our antagonist is invisible and we don’t know where when or howseverely it may strike here. These are extraordinary times and if we’renot monitoring the news we’re talking about it; reviewing the latestinformation considering next steps thinking ahead for the community’sbest interests around things like worker exposure firefighter safetyservice levels community economics public needs future workloadsinformation provision … and so much more.”
Devolin said he’s concerned for the county’s 18000 year-round residents many of whom are senior citizens.
“We have a significant at-risk group” he said adding that based oninfection rates in other countries before the pandemic is over it’slikely most county residents will at least know someone affected by thevirus 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 toldthe paper he hasn’t slept properly during that same time period.
The province has granted municipal councils permission to hold virtualmeetings during times of emergency and both Moffatt and Devolin saidthe logistics of implementing electronic meetings were being reviewedand Devolin said that ideally by the end of April he was hopingmeetings of Minden Hills council could resume electronically.
Alongwith conferring with members of their emergency management groups CAOsand updating members of their councils Devolin and Moffatt have been in regular contact with their county council colleagues.
HaliburtonCounty Warden Liz Danielsen told the Times she appreciates the waycommunity residents are working together to get through this difficulttime.
“This truly is an extraordinary and troubling time for us all but what I continually find most remarkable is how times like thisbring us all together and make us stronger” Danielsen wrote in anemail. “I see examples of people working together answering calls toduty that they would normally never be asked to do; people continuing to volunteer particularly at our local radio station people sharingbeing innovative and being very brave. I’m grateful to all of theorganizations and ad hoc groups that have been offering support andfood and even financial assistance to those in greater need. We have anaging population many of whom are on a fixed income who depend onservices that may not be available at times like we are experiencing. We could not be without you.”
Danielsen explained the county’semergency management group has been meeting three times per week somemembers via teleconference and that county officials have also beenteleconferencing with a pandemic task force consisting of health careprofessionals throughout the region.
“Will we get it right? I thinkwe’re as prepared as we can be and where we fall short plans are inplace to meet the need to the greatest extent we are capable as thingsprogress” Danielsen wrote. “We’ll make mistakes along the way but it’s all part of the learning curve and I believe all of our emergencycontrol groups have caught stride and are prepared. I’m hoping thatwe’ll all hold off on finger pointing until the dust settles and we candebrief and improve our emergency plans. Now is the time to standtogether and support one another.”
Danielsen Devolin and Moffattall strongly encouraged residents to abide by directives to practicesocial distancing and self-isolation as much as possible.
“It isfrustrating to see that some people albeit in fairly small numbersthank 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. “Itis ironic that our safety lies in staying apart from each other when weneed each other the most and I hope those careless few will finallycome to understand that.”
“In uncharted waters like these commonsense kindness and patience are our best protection” Moffatt told thepaper. “I’m thankful for the tremendous support extended by the publicthus far; and appreciate the continued messages and emails. While we’reworking hard at our roles I ask that you work hard on yours: make thetough choices do the right thing think of others. Hunker down. Don’thoard. Avoid unnecessary outings; and follow the public healthrecommendations so we can all look back with confidence in having madethe 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” hesaid. “Assume you have it and that anyone you come in contact with you can give it to them and they can give it you.”