Saskatoon city councillors held a special meeting on Monday afternoon to get an update on the COVID-19 situation in the city and decided not to bring in any new restrictions at civic facilities.
Last year, the city created what its website calls "a decision-making framework" to help limit COVID-19 transmission in city-owned facilities and inform residents. The risk criteria spans four levels, with thresholds based on COVID statistics in the city: minimal risk (green), caution (yellow), high risk (orange) and critical (red).
On Friday, Saskatoon rolled into the critical category.
On the website, each status corresponds with certain health measures in the city. They are not automatic — city council still needs to approve any new measures.
The measures listed for red status include closing city hall and city-owned leisure centres.
Pamela Goulden-McLeod, the city's director of Emergency Management, told council closing civic facilities would have little impact on the spread of the Omicron virus.
"I specifically spoke with Dr. [Jasmine] Hasselback [medical health officer for the Saskatchewan Health Authority] this morning regarding leisure centres and arenas," Goulden-McLeod said. "At this time, these [facilities] are not drivers of transmission in our community."
"They also have strong COVID safety protocols in place. Her assessment was there would be no impact on the current rate of transmission in our community if we close leisure centres and arenas."
Mayor Charlie Clark said Monday's meeting gave councillors the information they needed to keep the status quo.
"This is a rapidly evolving situation, and we need to continue to adapt, take advice and then make decisions on that basis while still being clear that we need to take Omicron very seriously," Clark said.
"We will do everything we can within the city programs and services to have the layers of protection in place so that people can get the mental health and physical health services they need while also doing so safely."
The city's website also says red status could mean mandatory testing for all staff reporting to the workplace — whether they're vaccinated or not — and the city asking the province to declare a state of emergency.
According to the city's website, as of Jan. 5, the seven-day average for COVID cases per 100,000 people was 30.5 and the seven-day average test positivity rate was 17.6 per cent. Both of those statistics fall into the "red" category.
Staff return delayed
City manager Jeff Jorgenson said administration had originally planned to have all staff back in the workplace this month, but that has been put off until April because of Omicron.
Jorgenson said they do anticipate the highly transmissible Omicron variant will affect staffing, like it has with sectors across the workforce.
"We're anticipating a challenge potentially that we've never seen before with the high levels of absenteeism. But every department throughout the city, we feel is very well-prepared," Jorgenson said. "So at this point, we're not expecting any any shutdown of critical services."
He said protocols are in place to protect essential services in Saskatoon.
Andrew Roberts, director of recreation and community development, said there have been concerns from people in health programs about masking on walking tracks.
Current rules say everyone must be fully vaccinated or provide a negative test to get into a civic facility. They must also wear masks in the facility except while doing an activity.
Roberts said they are working with the Saskatchewan Health Authority to see if they can put in dedicated times at the Shaw Centre walking track where masking would be mandatory at all times on the track.
Free masks back on buses
Council did decide to bring back the policy of giving out free masks on transit buses to anyone that does not have one. Giving out free masks had been discontinued in early December.
Coun. Darren Hill said he has heard from bus drivers that confrontations had increased since they stopped giving out masks.
On Saskatoon Morning, Clark said the city has made it a priority to work closely with social service agencies to make sure homeless shelters are getting the support they need to help vulnerable people.
Last week, the city's Emergency Management Organization said that there had been no disruption to city services like garbage collection, snow removal or water treatment.
Fire and police departments have also not seen a reduction in service.
Officials will continue to monitor the situation.