Hotspot designation irks Bay businesses, township

·10 min read

Pembroke – The Barry’s Bay area was identified by the local health unit as the hotspot for COVID-19 in Renfrew County last week, making not only local news, but national news for the small village of about 1,300 people in the southwestern part of the county.

“It put us in a very bad light as a community,” Madawaska Valley (MV) Mayor Kim Love told the Leader. “The concern from the business owners was the very negative impression this was giving of our community. We have been working very hard. The vast majority of the population has been working very hard to comply.”

In an open letter to the community, she alsocalled out those who are not complying with directives from the Renfrew County District Health Unit (RCDHU).

“To anyone simply unwilling to follow the guidelines of public health, if you can’t join the rest of society in wearing a mask, washing your hands and staying six feet apart, then please stay home,” she said.

In a release last Friday from the RCDHU, Barry’s Bay was highlighted not only as an area of concern because of merchants who complain about customers not complying with mask wearing, but also “anti-mask demonstrations and concerns about post-secondary students not complying” with health unit directives.

Since January 1st, the Bay area has had 27 cases of COVID-19 whereas the remainder of Renfrew County and the district covered by the RCDHU has totaled only 47. This is 36 per cent of all the cases in an area with only 12 per cent of the total population in RCD.

However, a clarification on Monday given by the health unit to MV, where Barry’s Bay is located, stated the issue is not just seen as isolated to the village by the health unit, but the entire township, as well as neighbouring townships. These are: Killaloe, Hagarty and Richards (KHR); Brudenell, Lyndoch and Raglan (BL&R) and South Algonquin. Mayor Love passed this on in a letter to the community, pointing out Barry’s Bay is the main service and employment centre for the area.

“It has a combined population of approximately 12,600 people,” she wrote. “Of the 27 cases of COVID-19 referenced and attributed to the Barry’s Bay area by the RCDHU press release, 22 cases have been in Madawaska Valley, four in Brudenell, Lyndoch and Raglan and one in South Algonquin.”

KHR has the distinction of being one of two municipalities in the county with no cases of COVID since the pandemic began, the other being Head, Clara and Maria. Pikwakanagan First Nation has also had no cases.

Blindsided By Release

It’s been a couple of challenging days for Mayor Love since Barry’s Bay was named a hotspot. The municipality and business owners were basically blindsided by the press release, she pointed out.

“We had no notice, so that puts you in reactive mode,” she said. “We would prefer to be a partner in assisting in getting the message out.”

Since then, the emails, calls and messages began to go back and forth between the township, the mayor and the health unit, as well as members of the local board of health. The township was also dealing with inquiries by business owners and community members who were concerned and upset.

Impact on Business

A Barry’s Bay business owner who spoke to the Leader on the condition of anonymity called the press release from the health unit “damaging, reckless and very careless” to frame the community as a hotspot.

“It has affected business in Barry’s Bay and people’s perception of Barry’s Bay and coming into town,” he said. “And things like this last a long time.”

Their business saw a “noticeable” decline in business since Saturday. Speaking to other business owners, they reported the same impact with declines in foot traffic or cancellations of reservations for services or appointments.

“The damage they did to Barry’s Bay is unbelievable,” they said. “To get the title of hotspot thrown at us is unbelievable.”

The fall out in social media has been tremendous as well, they noted.

“People are criticizing businesses if they see snowmobiles parked at their locations,” they noted. “It is inciting back and forth comments that are not fair.

“Everyone in the business community is feeling the fallout. There is no other way to describe it,” they noted. “It has been felt since the weekend.”

Of added concern they said the health unit had never singled out another community like this and they questioned if it had a co-relation to the anti-mask protest on a Sunday earlier in the month in the community. They also said singling out post-secondary students was not fair since the post-secondary institution in the community, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College, has worked hard to ask students and staff to comply with local health directives.

Ironically, as their business saw less foot traffic, the question was where people were going for their shopping. If they are choosing to travel to other communities to shop, it just increases the impact of travel.

“They have scared people and put people in a worried state,” the business owner said.

Timing of Release

Mayor Love said while the spike in cases occurred in the first two weeks in January, the press release and notification of concern did not occur until the third week in February.

“We wanted the health unit to know if they communicate with us as soon as they see a spike in numbers, we are there for them, to assist them with messages directly to our public,” she said. “We are there to help and also keep our communities healthy and safe.”

Mayor Love said she understands MV had one case of COVID-19 early on in 2020 and no cases at the time of the December 26 provincial lockdown. By January 11, the township had 15 cumulative cases and seven active ones.

“It could be someone travelling into Madawaska Valley from an infected area or someone travelling to an infected area and coming back to Madawaska Valley,” she said. “The travel that brought COVID-19 here might have involved cities like Ottawa or Toronto, but it could just as easily have been local travel within Renfrew County.”

The mayor also described it as “unfortunate” a reporter travelled to the community from an Orange Zone to Barry’s Bay on Saturday to report on the situation.

“I’m not sure that would be essential travel,” she said.

The mayor said moving forward she is glad to have an open line of communication with the health unit and is anticipating a good working relationship as a partner in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Health Unit Warning

Renfrew County and district has been classified as a Green Zone throughout the time the province had applied the COVID-19 Response Framework and was among the first regions to re-open following the provincial lockdown in December. With a total of 321 cases since the pandemic began and 11 active cases reported on Tuesday and two deaths since the pandemic began, the district is one of those with the lowest infection numbers in Ontario and well below the provincial average.

Although early on the COVID numbers were isolated to the larger centres in the county like Arnprior or Renfrew and those closest to Ottawa, it is rare for one community to be highlighted as an area of concern within the county as has occurred with Barry’s Bay and region. One exception was when an outbreak occurred among a Mennonite Community in Whitewater Region, but that situation was always identified as being confined to the self-contained community.

Dr. Robert Cushman, the acting chief medical officer of health for the health unit, stressed the county and district has had low numbers overall.

“The exception is the Barry’s Bay area which, surprisingly, has seen more COVID-19 cases in 2021 than all of last year,” he said in a release.

“While there is no obvious direct cause and effect link, and the spread has mostly been within families, we have to ask, why is this area not following the downward trend we see across the rest of RCD?” he asked.

He did not rule out implementing more stringent rules in the Barry’s Bay area if the number of cases continues to rise.

“Businesses are finally getting the chance to open again, to employ their workers, and to serve their customers delayed needs,” he added. “The last thing we want to do is to jeopardize our status and clamp down yet again on the economy, or possibly implement more stringent rules in the neighbourhood of Barry’s Bay compared to elsewhere in Renfrew County and district.

“This is concerning as it will be a challenge with forecasts of a third wave driven by COVID-19 variants that are more infectious and spread quicker than the original strains of the virus.”

Dr. Cushman said constant attention needs to be paid to masking, distancing and proper hygiene. Moreover, what stands out amongst the latest cases is the number of contacts and the additional spread.

“COVID-19 is a very social virus, especially the new strains and it goes without saying that we need strict adherence to our household and workplace contacts to limit the spread,” he said. “We are all in this together and I would urge everyone of us, and especially the folks living in the Barry’s Bay area to be vigilant to protect themselves, others and the economy. As the old saying goes, “when the going gets tough, the tough gets going.”

Mayor Love Reaches Out

Since the community was identified as a hotspot, Mayor Love sent two open letters to the community.

“The municipality has repeatedly asked everyone to comply with provincial orders and follow the guidelines of public health,” she said in an open letter. “Not doing so jeopardizes the health of our essential workers, healthcare providers, families, seniors and the economic viability to the local businesses we all depend on.

“To the vast majority of Madawaska Valley residents and visitors who are staying within their household bubbles, wearing masks, washing their hands, staying six feet apart and limiting their exposure to others, you are putting the well-being of our entire society first and we sincerely thank you,” she said. “To anyone who, for medical reasons can’t wear a mask, please contact a friend or a volunteer group that is willing to pick up food and essentials for you while you stay safe at home.”

The mayor also addressed some of the concerns raised by Dr. Cushman.

“To anti-mask protesters, please note that protests will not end this pandemic,” the mayor stated. “COVID-19 doesn’t care if you protest. Everyone who is following the guidelines of public health does care. If you can’t join us, then please stay home.”

Mayor Love concluded by asking everyone in the community to follow the established protocols.

“Let’s make sure the Barry’s Bay area doesn’t require stricter enforcement measures,” she said. “We are all in this together. We all need to stay vigilant right now to protect the local economy and our community.”

As the focus shifted to Barry’s Bay late last week, the entire county and district saw a slow increase in COVID-19 numbers. Earlier last week an outbreak was reported at Valley Manor, the long-term care home in Barry’s Bay. An outbreak is declared at a long-term care home when one individual tested positive.

Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader