West Nipissing council voted with a strong majority Tuesday against a resolution asking the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit to “immediately transition” out of COVID-19 shutdown extension.
Deputy Mayor Yvon Duhaime was the lone member to vote in support of asking Dr. Jim Chirico, the Medical Officer of Health, to align the district with the provincial framework, including the reopening of toboggan hills, outdoor rinks, and snowmobile trails.
The resolution, tabled by Mayor Joanne Savage in response to a widely-circulated letter by resident Rejean Venne, who cited statistics that argued the local health unit wasn’t basing its decisions on available information.
Venne was also calling for a cost-benefit analysis to weigh the risks of COVID-19 against the toll on local businesses, increases in opiod deaths and overall impact on the mental health of residents.
See: Our region needs to be treated more fairly when it comes to the COVID-19 response
And: Parry Sound Chamber of Commerce demands data to justify extended lock down order
“This is not going to resolve our situation,” Duhaime said of the current situation where other neighbouring regions have looser restrictions and more open economies. “We can’t stop this from happening (when people can bring the virus back such as the case at the North Bay apartment building) meanwhile everybody suffers.”
Duhaime said he agrees with the mayor of Sudbury who wants to create a northern bubble to keep non-essential travelers out of the area.
“In West Nipissing, we’ve done reasonably well, we’ve done everything humanly possible to keep everyone safe, but, unfortunately, you close the door in one area but you leave the windows open, then things can happen,” he said. “If we’re going to close it, let’s close it and do it properly.”
Otherwise, Duhaime said, the extension of the shutdown merely “penalizes the businesses in our area.”
Councillor Chris Fisher said it is “terrible with no end in sight, however … if we encourage Dr. Chirico to lift some rules and people start dropping dead around us, that’s a problem.”
Fisher also noted that West Nipissing council “doesn’t have the same information he has.”
Councillor Denis Senecal also supported the status quo of keeping the district under tighter restrictions “especially with that variant in North Bay.”
Senecal said he’s satisfied with Dr. Chirico’s decisions that included closing snowmobile trails, outdoor rinks and toboggan hills even though most of the province didn’t do so.
“I think we’ve been well served by Dr. Chirico, he’s kept us safe so far. To open it up now I don’t think it’s wise,” he said.
Councillor Dan Roveda said it’s not council’s jurisdiction.
“It’s the health unit’s responsibility to keep people healthy,” Roveda said, adding he supports the “radical” closing of potential gathering activities 100 per cent.
“Dr. Chirico is trying to save lives. God forbid one of the variants get into our community, it would spread like a wildfire” like it did in North Bay, he said.
Councillor Leo Mallette agreed with Venne’s points and helped bring the motion to the table but he appeared to recognize council’s lack of jurisdiction.
Councillor Rolly Larabie said there’s no reason to discuss the resolution if they have no power to overrule Dr. Chirico.
“It’s pointless, we can’t change his mind,” he said, suggesting instead that the resolution go to the emergency control group for review. But Jay Barbeau, chief administrative officer, said that group respects “incident command” management structures.
Barbeau said they’d follow the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry decisions if it was a forest fire and the police if it was a criminal situation.
“This is a health thing … and we tend to follow the direction of experts in those areas,” he said, adding a cost-benefit analysis would more likely be done at global level rather than a district health unit.
Councillor Lise Senecal recognized that “everybody is sick and tired, getting cabin fever or whatever you call it … it’s not fun for everybody.”
Senecal shared she’s been retired for a year and can’t travel but going against Dr. Chirico isn’t advisable, especially considering the aging demographic in the district that’s most vulnerable to the virus.
Council can make decisions that prepare the municipality to open, such as giving staff the green light to get ready for outdoor rinks reopening or closing the arenas if it’s no longer feasible.
Savage also said council should stick in its lane, although she’d like to see more communication between health unit districts and municipal leaders.
“Our role is as ambassador … to tell people to follow the health regulations,” she said, which include for the North Bay and Parry Sound district to remain under lockdown until at least Monday.
Dave Dale is a Local Journalism Reporter with BayToday.ca. LJI is funded by the Government of Canada.
Dave Dale, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, BayToday.ca