Niagara Region council has voted to implement mandatory vaccines for employees and the same policy could be just around the corner for Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Regional staff could be exempt from requiring a vaccine under the Ontario Human Rights Code based on religious conflict or proven medical exemption, said Donna Gibbs, the region's director of legal and court services.
If a staff member is exempt they will require COVID-19 testing which will vary in frequency depending on the nature of their job, chief executive officer Ron Tripp told regional council.
The fine details of the region’s policy are expected to be known by mid-September. Lord Mayor Betty Disero said if NOTL councillors approve it, the municipality will implement the region's policy in town, albeit with changes specific to Niagara-on-the-Lake’s needs.
“I hope that councillors will step up and support doing that as well,” she said.
Disero said any specific policy discussions and implementation won’t take place until the region’s policy is officially announced.
An amendment was passed requiring councillors to receive the vaccine in order to do any in-person business as a member of regional council, though there were some holdouts.
Disero voted in favour of all the motions presented during the regional meeting regarding vaccines for staff and councillors. She said councillors need to get the vaccine as well if they are going to expect regional staff to.
“We are leaders in the community and I think we need to lead by example on this,” she said in an interview.
NOTL Regional Coun. Gary Zalepa voted against the amendment forcing councillors to receive the vaccine but was in favour of requiring regional staff to do so.
Zalepa explained his rejection of the amendment regarding councillors by saying he applauds medical organizations that are mandating vaccinations but “the Region of Niagara’s not delivering health care.”
Coun. Laura Ip of St. Catharines was quick to dispute the claim.
“We employ an awful lot of health care workers who do exactly that, they provide health care. I think almost half of region staff is in health care,” she told councillors.
Zalepa also referred to private businesses doing things differently than public institutions.
“I think we should be a little more like that,” he said.
Disero said “it’s not good leadership” to have staff-mandated vaccinations but refuse them as a councillor.
“How can we ask our staff to do something that council’s not prepared to do?” she told The Lake Report.
Disero asked acting medical officer of health Dr. Mustafa Hirji if he viewed the motion as beneficial in the fight against COVID-19 and the push to get more people vaccinated.
Hirji said that the region will become a role model and probably inspire some vaccine holdouts to get the jab.
But he didn’t think that was the most important aspect of the motion.
“The primary motivator here, though, is really about the safety to our residents who interact with the region’s staff and of our employees as a whole,” he said.
Hirji worried that putting unvaccinated regional staff in contact with residents was putting residents at risk. He said unvaccinated staff have a high chance of catching COVID and bringing it into the region’s workplaces, causing disruptions in operations.
Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report