Wood Buffalo residents worried about oilsands worker safety amidst pandemic

Cleanliness of buses. The risk of COVID-19 catching a ride on a private aircraft to a work camp. The ability to small businesses to pay rent.

On Wednesday, residents of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo participated in a virtual town hall, giving them a chance to pose questions to representatives of government, Alberta Health Services and other local leaders.

As of Wednesday evening, there were 23 cases of COVID-19 in the north zone. A Fort McMurray dentist office confirmed that one of its staff had contracted COVID-19. 

Using only their first names, people could call or send written questions to the town hall event. 

A caller who identified himself as Joe said he has worked at the Albian Sands site for two years, which has a private airport.

"In my opinion, it's probably one of the worst problems for our community," he said. 

Joe acknowledged that there have been no cases of COVID-19 in Wood Buffalo work camps yet, but he is worried about workers who are flying in and out from '"hot spots."

He wanted to know what was being done to mitigate the risk. 

Scott Davis, the RMWB's director of emergency management, said the municipality is working with company officials from its emergency management and services group.

"We continue to engage with our regional industries, including Albian Sands," he said.

"I can't answer as to what their direction will be. However, I would suggest ensuring that your supervisor's apprised and if those discussions aren't positive, then I would suggest contacting Alberta Health Services." 

Mayor Don Scott addressed Joe as well, saying he has long had concerns about fly-in, fly-out camps. 

"This is just one more reason I don't think it's something that should be a long-term plan of any industry in this region."

Scott said he has brought up the concern with industry partners and has put forward a city council motion that includes a directive to only allow essential employees to stay at camps during the pandemic. 

"I believe, with the industry discussions I've had, that they are taking exceptional measures right now and I believe our partners are going to do their best during this time to keep us safe."

What about busing?

Rob, another resident, wanted to know what is being done to protect workers still busing in and out to work sites. 

"The essential workers still rely on taking the buses out to site," he said. "I don't really see anyone doing anything about those bus stops."

Karim Zariffa, executive director of the Oilsands Community Alliance, said there are bus protocols for cleaning, boarding, spacing people out and reducing the number of passengers. 

Jamie Doyle, the municipalities chief administrative officer, added that the municipality has increased the cleaning schedule so the bus shelters are cleaned several times a day. 

Municipality has 'no authority' to freeze rent

Several residents wondering about rent deferrals or freezes for businesses in town that have closed were told that the Wood Buffalo Economic Development Corporation has struck a task force to study the issue and make some recommendations.

One of those recommendations could include rent deferrals, said Kevin Weidlich, CEO and president of the organization.

The economic development corporation is also looking to see what programs it can offer businesses. 

"It's widely recognized … that rent and cash flow issues for small businesses is significant. What we will attempt to do is to come up with something to help to alleviate it," said Weidlich. 

"But by no means are we in a position to make things significantly easier. This is a worldwide issue."

Weidlich recommended businesses work with their landlords to find an "arrangement to get through this crisis."

And business owners should talk to their banks for assistance with cash flow, he added.

The mayor quickly added that "we have no authority as a municipality to freeze rent" but said finding solutions for businesses is a top priority. 

"We want to make sure business is in a position to bounce back in this region."