It may be an understatement to say 2020 was a challenging year, but Progressive Conservative MAH Loyola O’ Driscoll said it’s important to stay optimistic, despite the challenges.
“I encourage everybody to stay vigilant, and stay positive, and hopefully in the New Year we’ll be able to get over this,” said the member for Ferryland District in a year end interview last week.
The year, of course, started with a bang, with a record shattering snowfall dubbed Snowmageddon in mid-January.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic, which had originated in China in late 2019 and spread across Asia and into Europe in the new year, hit the province in March, with the province recording its first case on March 14. Within weeks, the province had gone into a full lockdown, and people were tuning into the daily briefing updates by the premier and Chief Medical Officer like it was wartime. Government – both provincial and federal – suddenly loomed larger in people’s lives.
“People are trying to make ends meet. They’re not just lying down, they’re trying hard. And we’re there to assist and help as best as we can,” said O’Driscoll.
Often, he said, residents would come to him for clarification on the new restrictions, which came in fast and furious and sometimes seemed to change overnight.
Many questions revolved around restrictions and testing for rotational workers.
“Sometimes, even though you listen to the briefings everyday, it’s not always clear how the information is interpreted. So, you always have to double check for people,” said O’ Driscoll.
“Everybody reads it differently and how it all applies to everybody. How does it work that somebody can come home as a rotational (worker) and have to stay in the same house as their spouse and their kid, and the kid can go to school and the wife can go to work, and he can’t go out? It doesn’t make sense in that regard in everybody’s mind, so you try to deal with that, as those are the rules, and you try to explain them as best you can. We would also go doublecheck with the Chief Medical Officer, or the Department of Health and follow up on some of those (inquiries). So, you do your best to get those answers, and things have pretty well been resolved, other than we’re still under restrictions, but that’s life as I see it until we get the vaccine.”
O’Driscoll said COVID presented challenges for all residents, but particularly for those in the tourism sector.
“It’s the second biggest industry in Newfoundland, after the fishing industry, and they’ve been hit really hard,” he said. “Obviously, visitors can’t come in, so you’re dependent on the local economy.”
The year provided a chance for many people to explore their own backyards and support tourism operators that did stay open. But that still couldn’t match the value of the usual tourism trade.
“It was tough. It was really tough for the people trying to do things properly,” said O’Driscoll. “And you try to stay calm and deal with it case-by-case… We’ve got to hang in there. We have to try to push forward as best we can. It’s a tough economic time for sure, based on COVID alone, to try and do anything. There were restaurants started here during COVID and did pretty well. Hopefully we can rebound for next year and get back to normal, but that remains to be seen.”
The year also proved difficult for non-profits and fundraiser groups, said O’ Driscoll.
“You look at community halls or you look at groups like the Gould’s Lions Club or the Kinsmen or the Legions, and all these people have fundraisers and suppers throughout the year and it’s a job for them to keep their buildings (going) with these restrictions,” said O’ Driscoll.
It’s also been a quieter year for politicians, given the number of events cancelled that they would have normally attended.
“You don’t get to interact with people as much and it’s tough,” said O’ Driscoll, who said he is still cautious about attending events, given the recent rise in coronavirus cases.
“With birthdays, or anniversaries, or other special events, now that the second wave has hit, I always call people to make sure it’s okay to go. I don’t want to interrupt or push in on anyone. I want to make sure they’re comfortable with me knocking on their door.”
But, added O’ Driscoll, who was elected to his first term in May of 2019, the lockdown provided time to brush up on his government homework.
“I’m still considering myself a new MHA. I’m 18 months into it, and still learning the ropes, and trying to figure my way through government and how it all works,” he said.
O’ Driscoll questioned whether the Liberal government ought to call an election in the immediate future. Provincial regulations say an election must be called within a year of the swearing in a new premier.
Andrew Furey was sworn-in in August, meaning a provincial election would have to be called by August of 2021.
“I don’t think this is the correct time. I’m not in government, but I don’t think it’s time for that right now. People are a little leery. Going knowing on doors? I’m not so sure that’s so safe for myself or anybody else,” said O’ Driscoll. “I don’t think the timing is great. But who knows if they’re going to have it? We don’t know that. It has to be called within a year, but who knows, I guess that depends on COVID and the vaccine and how that goes… There’s other things to worry about other than an election, I would think. But I guess the rules say you have to have it within the year, so I guess it will happen within the year, unless they change something.”
Meanwhile the recent approval of a vaccine, with plans for the province to receive some doses before Christmas, is good news, said O’Driscoll. He has yet to hear how vaccine distribution along the Southern Shore will work, given the wide distances between some communities and the delicate handling conditions the vaccine demands.
“We’re not in on that conversation. Government is deciding that, with the Chief Medical officer and their team,” said the MHA. “We’re really not in on that conversation.”
Despite the challenges caused by the pandemic, O’Driscoll said it’s not all been a year of doom-and-gloom, and there have been plenty of bright spots along the way.
One, he said, was watching rival tour boat companies O'Brien’s and Gatheralls’ set aside their differences and combine their operations for the summer months.
He also noted that residents at Alderwood Retirement Centre in Witless Bay, who have performed skits and gone on bubble adventures, have been a source of good cheer and encouragement along the Southern Shore and beyond.
“They’re so uplifting to watch, and they do such a great job of it,” said O’Driscoll. “It’s unbelievable what they do. There’s a lot of good stuff that’s going on.”
Mark Squibb, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Shoreline News