A special Council Meeting was held Thursday to discuss a resolution drafted by Mayor Steve Ferguson, urging the province to help discourage travel to Prince Edward County for the duration of the province-wide State of Emergency. After much debate, the resolution was deferred until the next Special Council Meeting on May 7th.
Premier Doug Ford has declared a State of Emergency until May 12th. With the Victoria Day long weekend looming ahead-and what is usually the kick-off for the tourist season-many are wondering what could happen in Prince Edward County should an influx of self-serving visitors ignore the requests made by the Province to stay at home and come to Prince Edward County.
During the course of this pandemic, our understanding of the Coronavirus has mutated. We now better understand the myriad ways in which it is spread and also the ways in which other regions have protected their populations from it, with varying degrees of success.
One constant throughout this health crisis, however, has been an understanding that rural areas such as the County are ill-equipped to handle a deluge of COVID-19 cases.
A statement from the Prince Edward Family Health Team outlined the serious risk posed to the local population should we be inundated with cases, as many regions have been.
Ferguson’s resolution took this into consideration. The nearest ICU is 45 minutes away. With only two ventilators at Prince Edward County Memorial Hospital, those in need could end up dying before receiving help.
“The Family Health Team of Prince Edward County has written and circulated an open letter to the public requesting that travel to The County during the COVID-19 pandemic may place significant strain on our hospital and medical capabilities,” wrote Ferguson.
Another point of contention is the seriousness of supply chain shortages should the population balloon as per normal each summer. In his resolution, the mayor raises this as yet another concern.
“Medical facilities and essential retail services are suffering from supply chain shortages due to the global pandemic that have the potential to be further exacerbated by the imminent arrival of Travellers,” the resolution reads.
With the possibly imminent arrival of tourists that eschew medical advice, the resolution asks that the provincial government recognize the increased risk of COVID-19 spread in the County should the summer season bring an increase in visitors.
The resolution pays heed to the steps taken by Ford along with the provincial government to limit the spread of COVID-19 by repeatedly advising the public to stay home and avoid unnecessary travel.
With these things in mind, the resolution asks that the provincial government “take all steps necessary” to prevent travel to the County from elsewhere while the province is under a State of Emergency.
“The primary concern of all of us must be the safety of our residents, particularly our disproportionately large senior population. For over a month, we’ve been advising the public now is not the time to visit the County, owing to the State of Emergency and all the amenities that people love about the county being closed,” said Ferguson.
In speaking about this resolution at the online gathering of council members via video conferencing Thursday, the Mayor also noted the many concerns that have been raised by way of complaints and comments with regards to travellers coming to the County during the pandemic.
“I think it’s fair to say we have all received comments, complaints and concerns raised by the public concerning travellers coming into the county from elsewhere that may affect the health and well being of our municipality,” said Ferguson. “The province has gone to great lengths to advise the public not to travel. Yesterday there was a message from Ford to Manitobans and Quebecers not to come to Ontario, just prior to Easter, the premier made a similar comment to the Mayor of Bracebridge asking people not to travel north.”
As the mayor noted, the theme with such communication is that the virus travels with people, increasing the risk of spread wherever they go.
“The theme is effectively the same as is the rationale. Small, rural communities such as ours don’t posses the capabilities to deal with a large influx of people,” he stated, adding“the majority of confirmed cases of COVID-19 are now the result of community spread.”
Speaking to this public health issue were several members of the local business community. All were in opposition to the resolution.
Scott Walcott is part owner of The Picton Harbour Inn and Lighthouse Restaurant, along with a fishing charter businesses and the cottage/campground Westlake Willows.
Walcott requested a deferral to allow for consultations to take place along with further provincial directives.
“This decision should not be made in haste and without significant consultation to determine impacts and potential mitigating measures. The lack of transparency and public private consultation is a concern,” he said.
Though the resolution was apparently intended in anticipation of the usual swell of summer tourists, Walcott impressed upon council that he believed sending such a resolution to the provincial government would be premature.
As well, he argued that the Economic Recovery Team needed to be consulted. The team consists of several councillors, the mayor and business owners from varied sectors.
According to the municipality, the mandate of The Recovery Team will be to help identify needs, assist in the flow of communication, and better equip the municipality to respond to challenges with programs and activities that leverage support offered at the federal, provincial and regional levels.
“It’s unacceptable that the economic recovery team was not consulted about this decision. A report and endorsement form the economic recovery team should be shared with the public and tourism stakeholders prior to a resolution of this magnitude should be considered,” argued Walcott.
Though many councillors agreed with the sentiments within the resolution, there were some who urged clarification. One such councillor was Kate MacNaughton.
“It looks as though there’s a good deal of misunderstanding about what your target is. It’s a good opportunity to take it away and outline another draft and perhaps look for some more ways to include language that supports what the province is already doing and suggesting along with the prime concern being that accommodators stay closed to non-emergency uses,” she said.
Not mincing words, Councillor Bill Roberts spoke to the need for economic recovery, but recovery that does not imperil the lives of the most vulnerable.
“First of all, I think we all want the County economy back up and running which will take some time. It’s imperative. We all know we have a tax base that needs to get rolling, but it has to be done safely and the way which underlines our care of the most vulnerable,” stated Roberts. “In this discussion, I think its very important to focus on data as opposed to hyperbole assumptions or anecdotes. It’s been mentioned that we have the fourth best outcome with regards to keeping this pandemic under control. The data also tells us that the Greater Toronto Area is six times more prone to the virus than we are here. Montreal is 21 times more prone. And, our population which is the second oldest in Ontario, is up to 20 times more fatal with regards to this COVID-19 virus.”
“There’s not a lot of point of having an economic recovery if the means to get there involve heightened risk to that very serious part of our population,” he added.
On the other end of the spectrum, Councillor Andreas Bolik decried the resolution as being both “xenophobic” and “reactionary”.
Bolik also questioned the definition of the word traveller, which is capitalized through the resolution.
“When you capitalize the word “traveller” the dictionary refers to words like rogue, drifter or Roma. This is mostly offensive language,” he said. “We have already made coming to the County unattractive to day trippers by cancelling events. Overnight stays are unlikely since accommodaters cannot host casual visitors. So who are we really talking about?”
Apart from questioning the intent behind the resolution, Bolik questioned how far isolating the County would go, drawing a parallel between the proposed resolution and Donald Trump building a wall to isolate America from their southerly neighbours.
“Are we becoming reactionary and xenophobic and how would we enforce this,” questioned Bolik. “Is the mayor proposing to build a wall on our northern border like President Trump? Does he want to blockade the bridges and stop the ferry?”
Elsewhere in Ontario, municipalities such as Lennox and Addington County and Frontenac County have sent letters to the premier urging the government to open up the Ontario economy using a regional, phased approach that balances evidence based research with potential risks.
The issue of the resolution will be brought before council again this upcoming Thursday, May 7th at 3 p.m.