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by Isabel Mosseler

Published April 4, 2020

Things have certainly changed around town hall in the span of two weeks. There are no more in-council meetings, offices are closed to walk-in traffic, and administration is in reaction mode as it is forced to respond to new measures and guidelines coming hour by hour from health officials, the province and the federal government – all while dealing with public panic, a paralyzed local economy and staffing challenges because of isolation measures. Without officially declaring an emergency, the town council is fighting a battle against a common enemy. COVID-19 has disrupted every facet of our collective lives.

Mayor Joanne Savage is not just a mayor; she’s also a wife, a mother and grandmother, facing her own issues in the midst of this crisis. Her husband, Dan Savage, recently had an accident and broke his nose – the proboscis that leads to his lungs - and that puts him in the high risk category. Mayor Savage says he’s not the best of patients. “I’m doing well based on the circumstances, really concerned but coping and trying to remain calm and keeping my husband safe as well, for him to understand that this is a serious issue… Sometimes he thinks we are going overboard with the issue of the virus, and I have to remind him with a reality check.” Mayor Savage is not alone – many families face the same issue of keeping family members to ground. “We are the ones that can control and mitigate the spread of this virus,” she insists.

Mayor Savage provides a rapid-fire rundown of the changes made at the municipal level in the last two weeks, changes that were unforeseen and life changing. “Ever since March 16th council has been very receptive in adopting all measures required to make sure that everyone remains safe. We shut down our public facilities even before the order came from the province. We took measures to defer tax instalments… Hopefully we can assist our businesses as well by adopting some kind of deferral for an extended period of time to provide that reassurance. The emergency control group… [we] put the partners together so that we can coordinate our efforts and work with all agencies. This issue is a health crisis and we’re there to work with them and support them. At the table we have the hospital, the health unit, the health centre, our emergency service providers, OPP and Fire, municipal resources. We’ve shut down the operation at town hall to public access to make sure our own employees are safe. If there’s anyone that does require assistance, we encourage residents to call town hall. If there’s any service request they can send an email to support@westnipissing.ca. The operations that we have assured our residents are continuing are Public Works for the roads, Water and Sewer, garbage and recycling pick-ups.”

Communication is also being maintained. “Our communication department is ensuring updates on social media, Facebook and website. We strongly encourage all residents to stay informed, and make sure that the information that they do get is from reliable sources,” the mayor advises. Savage admits this has been an issue, that she has been getting a lot of calls laced with fear. “Depend on your Health Unit. (…) Depend on World Health Organization information.”

She believes the more people are informed and aware, the safer everyone will be. “As a community we are a strong community. We’ve always had at heart the well being of everyone, but this is the time, a critical time, that we all have to pull together. This virus, the only way it spreads is by people not adhering to the guidelines or respecting the guidelines of the urgency to stay at home as much as possible. Leave your home only if there is a necessity, and make sure to maintain social distance and wash your hands frequently. That’s the only way we’re all going to be safe.”

Savage is also very thankful to the essential workers in the community, but also worries about their well-being. “Health, grocery stores, public servants that need to serve our constituents – they also have to remain healthy. We need to remain cognizant to not put them at risk. (…) [People] need to know that things are changing so quickly, not just daily, but different times throughout the day. There are new orders issued by the Premier of Ontario and the government of Canada. If there are any issues concerning respecting these orders, not complying with them, we have our enforcement agencies, and communicate with the OPP. We need to be alert that this is serious.”

As for people who are living alone, who don’t have family supports, who are unable to shop or maintain themselves while strictly adhering to the new rules, Mayor Savage advises, “We’ve been encouraging them to keep in contact with the various agencies if they need help… The municipality is maintaining a data bank of individuals who want to help. We are also encouraging people to undertake their civic duty of maintaining contact with neighbours, friends and relatives, being aware that we have a lot of vulnerable people in our community. I’ve been seeing a lot as far as individuals reaching out… If we all do our share … this is the time that we support each other.”

Grocery stores have become a danger point right now, and special hours for vulnerable people have been put in place at most locations. Asked if those restrictions might become more comprehensive in the future, with dial-in orders and pick-up or deliver only, Mayor Joanne Savage responded, “We’ve seen in the last two weeks so many changes adopted within the retail and grocery stores. They are looking at adopting all the measures they can for their employees, and we need to respect those guidelines as well. Will it come to the point of doing it online or by phone? I’m not sure. I don’t want to speculate. But one message I do want to give is that these individuals are front line workers and we depend on their services, and we need to be respectful toward each other and respectful to the guidelines given to us by the health experts.”

Savage is herself exercising utmost respect for the guidelines. “All of council wants to make sure our community is safe… and we’re going to keep at it until we get over it. I encourage people to remain calm and optimistic, but we all have a major contribution to this.”

Of course, the need to isolate makes day-to-day council business more complicated. “I have to say that it’s a first. The week of the 16th of March, having a conference call with all the mayors, with the Minister of Health Christine Elliot, the Ontario Chief Medical Officer Dr. Williams, and the Minister of Rural Affairs Steven Clark; they adopted legislation… special measures for council to continue business and moving the municipality forward. One of those provisions is to allow council to conduct business electronically. So far our meeting of council scheduled for 17th of March was cancelled. We haven’t yet identified a date to reconvene for normal business. Right now we are more concerned with the day-to-day issue of managing and making sure we have the proper resources to manage this crisis. It has an effect on our operations from Corporate Services to all departments in the municipality. (…) Some municipalities have cancelled everything until the end of April, however if there is a necessity to deal with an urgent situation, we have the capability of doing so,” Savage assures.

“I really want to thank all the essential workers, and also a big thank you to all the media, the Tribune, everyone out there that is disseminating information to make sure our people are well informed and well educated on what we need to do.”

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