The Township of Muskoka Lakes voted this week to stall the reopening of its community centres, electing to assess the situation in 30 days time.
The Township’s municipal buildings have been closed to the public since March 17 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Municipal services are available as staff work from home, but groups like the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) chapter that meets weekly at the Milford Bay Community Centre have suffered with the loss of the physical space.
“I think that this group needs to be given a priority so that they can restart their meetings,” Coun. Gordon Roberts said during the meeting, suggesting they meet in the evenings to allow time for the building to be empty and cleaned.
This is health-related programming and needs to be addressed soon, he added.
A staff report outlined three options for reopening the buildings that included adjusting hours of operation and rotating the use of specific locations in a phasing process.
Councillors Ruth Nishikawa and Frank Jaglowitz expressed support in a model that would slowly see priority community centres opened, particularly those with early-years child care and wellness programming for seniors.
“There’s an awful lot of depression going on right now,” said Coun. Nishikawa.
Doug, who asked we not publish his last name due to the anonymous nature of the organization, is the co-ordinator of the 20-odd person AA group that meets weekly at the Milford Bay Community Centre.
Disappointed, he understands the decision, but feels council is being too cautious.
For nearly 25 years Doug — 30 years sober himself — has led the meetings at the community centre and cannot recall a time when in-person meetings were outright cancelled like they have been during the pandemic.
“From an AA point of view,” he said, “online meetings just don’t cut it. AA meetings are a very personal thing.”
Some of the group have continued to connect via Zoom meetings or by phone. But not everyone has the resources, he pointed out, nor does he feel virtual replacements are sufficient.
There is an important social element to the meetings, he explained. “Rural-wise, we’re already isolated somewhat, so all these community centres become very focal as a meeting spot.”
This has to be a no-brainer, Coun. Glenn Zavitz said during the meeting, stressing he would not vote in favour of opening any of the township’s 13 community centres. “I can’t imagine we could entertain letting people in there now,” he said.
Currently, a maximum of 50 physically-distanced people adhering to hygiene requirements may gather in an indoor space, according to the provincial government.
Part of the staff report determined the cost to maintain cleaning and sanitation protocols which could run as high as $9,100 weekly if all 13 community centres reopened at 50 per cent utilization.
On the same day as the Aug. 12 council meeting, the provincial government announced the Safe Restart Agreement. The $695 million investment with the federal government will “address operating pressures related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In the first round of funding, $660,000 is slated for the Township of Muskoka Lakes.
Adhering to COVID-19 requirements is fine with Doug, who also welcomes moving the group to a larger room within the community centre in order to physically distance and accommodate new members.
A spokesperson for Alcoholics Anonymous said there has been an influx of calls from people seeking meetings across Muskoka. Doug’s phone has also been ringing.
“A newcomer in the throes of serious alcoholism, they need the one-on-one connection,” he said. “That’s something that is seriously lacking right now.”
At the start of the pandemic, both alcohol sales and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings were deemed essential services. The liquor store never did close, said Doug.
According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction, stress and boredom have driven a rise in alcohol consumption during the pandemic. More than 20 per cent of Canadians who drink alcohol reported an increase in consumption since the start of the pandemic.
“All you have to do is go into town and look at the lineup at the beer store or the liquor store,” Doug said. “(There are) a lot of people.”
Ultimately, council voted 8-2 in favour of postponing the return to community spaces, directing staff to return to council with a new report in September.
STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Long-term community centre closures are having an impact on the groups who use the space. Research shows those who struggle with substance issues are uniquely challenged right now because of isolation and the loss of in-person contact for support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, so we reached out to them to explore that.
At the time of this writing, Kristyn Anthony was a Local Journalism Initiative reporter, funded by the Government of Canada.
Kristyn Anthony, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, muskokaregion.com