By Stephen Petrick
Haliburton County won’t have a firm vaccine policy for its staff, but councillors say the county will continue to advocate for most public health guidelines, such as masking and distancing.
The thorough policy prepared by staff and delivered by chief administrative officer Mike Rutter died at the Wednesday, Feb. 9 council meeting, held virtually.
Councillors tensely debated the merits of the policy for more than half an hour, but ultimately decided that a mandate directing staff to be vaccinated presented too many legal quagmires and seemed unnecessary, given the shifting nature of the pandemic.
The thought of going ahead with a policy seemed to shift when Rutter received and delivered advice that Ontario public health officials were recommending, but not mandating, municipalities have staff vaccine policies in place.
“We’re just into crazy land here,” said Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt, summing up the frustration. “I don’t know how we can pin the tail on the donkey without it being motherhood.”
Many councillors offered their apologizes to Rutter and staff for working on the policy, and none at the table voiced any objections to COVID vaccines in general. But as the discussion lingered, it was clear that none of the eight voting councillors were in favour of the policy.
Warden Liz Danielsen allowed each councillor to share their thoughts. In the end a recorded vote wasn’t necessary because the policy had clearly lost support from all voting members.
Council first started debating the policy during a meeting in November, but deferred a vote and asked staff to seek more legal opinions, such as how the policy should be implemented for new staff and how it would apply to an elected councillor who is unvaccinated.
Councillors made it clear that the nature of the pandemic has changed dramatically since that meeting. They noted that other provinces are scaling back pandemic measures and the question of what is considered vaccinated (two doses or three doses) is also in question, so a policy mandating staff to be vaccinated was becoming more troubling than its worth.
“I don’t think this is necessary to have at this point,” said Minden Hills Deputy Mayor Lisa Schell, who was the first to speak up against the policy.
Moffatt, another strong critic of the plan, said she supports vaccines, but “I can’t support job losses, that’s going too far. We will never convince those who are unconvinced. There’s no point in beating a dead horse.”
Minden Hills Mayor Brent Devolin said, referring to the changing political landscape across the county, “I know we need to do this, but they’re changing the rules so fast.”
The proposed policy would have asked that “employees, council and committee members, volunteers, students and contractor employees who work in direct contact with county staff, to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.”
Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts suggested that the lost vote doesn’t mean Haliburton has to reject all public health measures; she pointed out that the policy was only to address vaccines and that the county can still advocate that its staff follow public health guidelines, such as masking and distancing.
Dysart et al Deputy Mayor Pat Kennedy also said that it’s important the county still work on a generic health and safety policy.