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by Isabel Mosseler
As provincial directives roll forward to enforce social isolation in the continuous effort to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 pandemic, the authorities in West Nipissing have had to continually adjust their procedures. Tasked with ensuring that ever-evolving regulations are respected, from a complete provincial fire ban to social distancing guidelines, it is a challenge that requires constant collaboration, through a local Emergency Control Group that meets weekly, and adaptability.
West Nipissing municipal CAO Jay Barbeau indicates that for the time being, the town, the police and the fire department are attempting to take a “soft approach”. The WN Fire Department has been designated to do some patrolling and encourage people to practice proper social distancing. Fire Chief Richard Maranda says, “We’ve got two of our units going out, the Fire Prevention and Training Officers are driving around and making sure people understand that it’s important to do social distancing. They are patrolling areas that might have a lot of people – just educating for now. They cannot charge anyone. That’s fair [taking the soft approach] and that’s basically what we’re trying to do, mentioning that it’s important and that it’s mandated at this time.”
CAO Barbeau explains, “I’m getting a lot of comments, or pushes, or requests to put further controls on the public in our community. What I’m doing is basically asking people to trust that we have plans in place to ramp up additional education and enforcement, but those things are not taken lightly. They have to be taken with the entire community in mind, with our partner agencies in mind and in a coordinated manner. What’s happening in West Nipissing is not necessarily what’s happening in Sudbury or what’s happening in Ottawa. We have to look at that and not jump the gun and start removing rights and powers and freedoms of our people just willy nilly, going around with bullhorns. There is a way of doing these things in a calm manner.”
He adds that he’s been consulting with the OPP, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jim Chirico of the District Health Unit, and the Fire Department. “So we are taking a coordinated approach. We are now ramping up some of our other enforcement people, but we’re using them as an educational tool. We’re going to be getting our [fire department] to drive in the community and roll their window down and ask people to social distance six feet apart, or [advise when there are] five people together… We’re going to kindly and gently educate people. The idea is not to go around the community with this stick like some of what we’re hearing on social media. …Should we have major offenders, the OPP, who are our municipal police, are on top of that. I’m on the phone with [Inspector] Ray St-Pierre and [Detachment Commander] Mike Maville about 6 times a week, and we have a coordinated approach on how this should roll out.”
Barbeau reiterates that no decisions are taken without consultation. “We are talking continuously – ‘What do you think? How are you going to do it? What do you need to do it?’ It’s a slow burn, a marathon, not a sprint. …You need to be calm, assertive and …you have to take the right time to implement things. …We have some great people in the community and I acquiesce to Incident Command. If it’s a forest fire, Incident Command is pulled together and it’s going to be our fire chief plus MNR Forestry. If it’s a hostage taking, Incident Command is led by the police. This is a health issue and our health care workers are trained in pandemic and they are assisting us.” Barbeau calls both Dr. Jim Chirico and Cynthia Desormiers, CEO of the WN General Hospital, “rock stars” in this matter.
Fire Chief Richard Maranda says that so far, the patrolling has not uncovered a lot of problems. “No, we’re not really encountering much. I haven’t heard anything negative from the guys coming in. People are respecting the request from the government.” As for enforcement, such as making sure businesses also follow the guidelines, “That’s going to be bylaw [enforcement officers], it won’t be us. (…) The [officers] will be doing their own thing – we’re just assisting with educating – it’s [officers] who lay the charges.”
As things advance, the rules may become more stringent. Barbeau says businesses may eventually have to mark the sidewalk in front of their stores with tape to ensure social distancing. “The store owners are taking the appropriate measures to make sure their businesses are compliant and they are putting the risk out onto the sidewalk. Now we are going to ask the store owners, and working with them, to maybe put some tape down …to keep people six feet apart, get some signage in there, and that’s where we will get the bylaw enforcement people to drive around, and where they see people gathering to train them to be six feet apart.” He adds that the larger stores with parking lots are policing matters themselves, but “on the sidewalks, I think we will probably have a role to play. “
The Fire Department is also busy enforcing the complete fire ban in the area. On April 3, Ontario designated the entire province a Restricted Fire Zone. Residents cannot have an outdoor fire; this includes burning of grass, debris and campfires, even when using an outdoor fire grate, fireplace or fire pit. Chief Maranda notes, “It’s the province that issued the fire ban, not the municipality. We made it a little more stringent. The province doesn’t want to put their firefighters at risk of contracting COVID-19 whenever they activate a group. They are more or less trying to keep their firefighters at home so they aren’t grouped together. At the same time, they’ve asked us to help them out if they do get a fire so a minimum of their firefighters will actually attend.”
Maranda acknowledges that the municipality went a step further. “What we did was completely ban open flames for fires. [The province allowed] propane and I’m saying if you can actually touch the flame… [then no]. They are selling propane campfires – we’re saying if the flame is coming over the sides you’re not allowed to use it. We don’t want any flames at all. A charcoal or propane barbecue that has a cover, that’s allowed. But any other open flame or fire, no. A chiminea is the same because of the embers that can fly out of it. If we can eliminate all sources of outdoor fires, we can eliminate those calls.”
While eliminating campfires is difficult, the Fire Chief believes it will keep people safer by promoting social distancing. “The thing is, a fire brings in a gathering. We’re trying to eliminate that at the same time.” For the same reasons, “unfortunately, the [MNRF] has cancelled all Crown Land camping. That eliminates gatherings also.”
Maranda continues, “I just want everybody to abide by the social distancing as much as they can. Unfortunately, I see people going to the grocery store 2 per family, or 3 or 4 per family. Only one person per family should be going to the grocery store… Designate one person per family to shop; it’s not a family outing.”
The fire department is keeping up with the extra patrolling so far. “Fortunately, it’s been pretty quiet; we’ve had a few carbon monoxide calls, but nothing major, nothing big, thank God and knock on wood. If we do get a call, we’ve got 20 to 30 people attending, and then we’re depleting our Personal Protection Equipment. Everybody has got to wear masks because we’re close together, so we’re depleting our stock of PPE. All of that is disposable.” As for morale among the fire crews, “Everybody seems to be in good spirits. We’ve cancelled the practical training of firefighters because we can’t have people together.” The meetings are held by teleconference or utilizing Webex. “It’s okay, I guess, but the thing is you don’t see the expression of the person doing the talking. …If I’ve got something to say, I like to say it face-to-face. It’s a different way of doing business! Maybe the younger generation don’t have a problem with it, but the older generation sure does. We’re not accustomed it.”
Barbeau says these municipal issues are similar across the province. “In Ontario, we have 430 municipalities … We are basically doing the things to comply with our directives that are provincial, local and district. If we start to get a need and have to [enact] local measures or directives as a solution, then we will. But we will take that when it comes. Other than ‘Hey, Jean-Guy was too close with some others having a beer’… because we know each other, we get a lot of those calls. The OPP have a triage centre where they get a call …they then call the people and tell them. Should it be worse than that, they tell an officer, who attends the scene. That’s the system they have been following.” For now.
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