By Sue Tiffin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The A. J. LaRue arena was announced on March 18 as the last of six vaccination clinics in the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge district health unit, first in a board of health meeting and then in an online announcement and press release by Dysart et al township that morning – but the site’s availability as a spot for mass immunization was reduced largely to ensure summer ice is available in the community for user groups and to meet the township’s contract with the Haliburton Hockey Haven.
On March 19, Dysart et al announced that instead of being used as a vaccination site from April 5 to September as initially arranged, the clinic will be cut short on June 12, continuing at an as-yet-unknown location, so that the arena can be used for recreation purposes throughout the summer instead.
“Dysart et al has been in further discussions with the HKPR District Health Unit yesterday and today about the vaccination centre at the A.J. LaRue Arena regarding the use of the arena as a vaccination site,” reads the March 19 press release from the municipality. “We are pleased to announce that a solution has been found to address the concerns expressed by so many throughout our community in response to the pending closure of the arena. The vaccination centre will still be located at the A.J. LaRue arena from April 5 until June 12 at which point, it will move to another location yet to be determined … Dysart et al is pleased that [HKPRDHU] listened to our concerns and those expressed by the public and has agreed to a solution that works for all parties. This means that summer ice will be back in and everything should be back to normal in time for Highland Storm and other leagues this fall.”
Dysart et al Deputy-Mayor Pat Kennedy, who sits on the municipality’s emergency control group and is a retired EMS director of the County of Haliburton said he received both complaints from individuals, with comments including the health and wellbeing of kids and lack of alternate activities, and also had some conversations 3with local organizations.
“Some of the major concerns included the lack of alternate activities available for our kids, closing both arenas at the same time that have the capability to start making ice early, and why wasn’t another site chosen,” he said. “I didn’t directly receive many complaints – 25 or so – however social media was certainly active and complaints were many.”
Though a petition with 65 signatures at press time has reportedly been circulating, Kennedy has not received that directly.
Staff had similar concerns as those expressed by the public, he said.
“Dysart resisted repeated requests from early February to pull the ice immediately to provide the arena as one of two permanent sites in Haliburton County,” said Kennedy. “Numerous other facilities and a number of businesses were contacted to see if a viable alternative site could be provided. The major impediments to securing alternate sites were traffic control, accessibility, stable Wi-Fi and cell coverage, and an inability to commit for up to six months. The decision to finally agree to use of the arena was driven by a time deadline that the arena be activated. Mass immunization sites needed to be confirmed as they are planning on beginning in early April [subject to vaccine availability]. This meant that a decision had to be made last week in order to get the ice out in time.”
Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts echoed Kennedy, saying he had been a strong voice for the community in his role on the committee.
“We had been asked since early February to take the ice out but were hesitant as we knew the repercussions that would cause,” she said, adding: “We also knew the over 80-year-olds would be done at the Haliburton Family Medical Centre so there was no immediate need to make that decision. Dysart has provided free exit tickets for this group who will be using the medical centre parking lot. We asked [the health unit] to look at several other options, both municipal and private businesses, but their preference came back to the arena. Fortunately after much discussion, we have been able to offer them the arena from April 5 until June 12, meaning we can go ahead with summer ice.”
Vaccinations for those 80-and-older start this week at the Haliburton Highlands Family Health Team medical centre in Haliburton, and are to open April 5 at the Minden and Haliburton arenas. They began on March 16 in Cobourg and March 18 in Lindsay, while clinics in Fenelon Falls and Campbellford begin April 5. The health unit has hoped each county in the region will have two sites for vaccinations, ideally within less than 30 minutes driving time for residents.
Kennedy said that in 2017, the municipality had signed a memorandum of understanding with the health unit to authorize the use of the arena for the purpose of holding mass health protection clinics.
“Not a criticism, as no one in 2017 could have foreseen the COVID pandemic nor the anticipated length of time the arena could be used,” said Kennedy. “Arenas are chosen for a number of reasons including: large parking area, usually well defined entry and exits, high ceilings, accessible washrooms, dressing rooms adjacent to the ice surface can be used to store supplies, and a large surface area to provide holding areas and to ensure sufficient space to maintain distances.”
From now until April 18, Andrea Mueller, events and recreation coordinator, said the Highland Storm, nine men’s leagues, youth figure skating, public skating, line dancing and regularly occurring weekly rentals plus private rentals were scheduled to use the arena.
Typically, the ice is out at A.J LaRue Arena from April 19 to June 12 for plant maintenance – normally ball hockey is running, but the municipality did not make preparations for it this year.
From June 29 to Labour Day, Haliburton Hockey Haven, men’s leagues, regularly occurring private rentals, local camps, weeknight programs for youth in the community, public skating and private rentals typically take place at the arena.
When asked about the decision to reopen the arena with summer ice rather than use it as a vaccination clinic throughout the summer months, Kennedy said: “There are a number of reasons why summer ice and fall ice be maintained if at all possible. Not only the social, exercise and recreational benefits of having summer ice available to the public, but also the need to ensure that the Highland Storm hockey organization (with over 200 kids enrolled) would be operational in time for their winter schedule. Dysart also has a contract with Hockey Haven to provide summer ice. It was a critical part of the effort to find a solution with HKPRDHU, as we recognize the importance of summer ice being a critical part of the viability of that organization and to ensure compliance with our contractual agreement.”
Halburton Hockey Haven, a private sports camp, has a multi-year contract with Dysart et al.
“In discussions with [the local health unit] they were very sympathetic to our situation and wanted to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution that will still serve the public need but also lessen a possible conflict with our contractual agreement with Hockey Haven,” said Kennedy.
Haliburton Hockey Haven did not run last year, due to provincial regulations as a result of the pandemic that saw summer camps remain closed. This year, owner Troy Binnie said the camp plans to run and is awaiting the final protocols to follow, including capacity limits.
“I did receive a call from the town on Thursday of the arena being used as a vaccination centre and thankfully received better information from Andrea Roberts [on] Friday that the decision had been made that the ice would be available for us and the community for the up-and-coming summer,” said Binnie. “I would like to thank all of the community and town council members who fought to change the health department’s decision and come up with an alternative location.”
Binnie said he and staff are preparing for “an exciting year back at camp on Kashagawigamog, A.J. LaRue arena and the Highland Golf Course.”
“Without ice at the arena, HHH would not be able to run our traditional summer camp so we would have most likely been closed for the summer again, which probably would not have fared well for us having to be closed for two years in a row,” said Binnie. “With kids not being able to play much or any hockey in some areas this winter I know a lot of our campers were getting very excited with the hopes of getting back on the ice again for a normalized hockey practice and scrimmages.”
A post about the initial announcement on the Highland Storm’s Facebook page shares concerns and criticism from parents as well as community members about there being no access to an arena this summer (S.G. Nesbitt arena in Minden has not opened yet and is also being used as a vaccination clinic, and Wilberforce’s Lloyd Watson arena is closed for the season).
“My main concern was regarding the youth of the community,” said Grade 11 student and Highland Storm player Darian Maddock. “I know that throughout the pandemic kids haven’t really been able to do anything. I know that we looked forward to hockey and other recreation being open again for so long. Then when the arena finally opened back up, it was shut down again for vaccines. I just don’t think that it is healthy for kids to be cooped up all the time. We need a place where we can get out and play, have activity and have fun with some friends, and the community centre is where they can go and do that.”
Darian has been a long-time goalie with the Storm.
“Youth sports and art programming is important to me because it’s something that the youth of this county really need,” said Darian, who is also student-assistant director for non-profit youth program Camexicanus. “Kids need a place where we can just go and pick up a stick and a ball or grab a guitar and be ourselves, a place that we can look forward to going to. In my experience hockey was something I always looked forward to, it was a chance to see my friends and burn off some energy, these programs are so important to the youth of this county. They keep our minds, bodies and souls engaged and healthy!”
Highland Storm president Jason Morissette said the year has not been an easy one for kids, including the Storm players.
“Because of COVID, and COVID certainly made for a challenging year and a very unusual year, but it’s also going to present challenges for next year, because everybody knows, really, that we’re not going to be in a state of normal next year, either,” he said.
The Storm announced on March 15 that the executive had voted unanimously to pause all Highland Storm minor hockey operations for two weeks from that day, to be proactive during current community spread of COVID-19 in Haliburton County, and are reviewing that decision this week. While normally their season was to end April 18, and typically they would get back to the ice in August, this year they planned to get back to the ice in September, rolling out the season by October or November. While the Storm do not need the ice as a team in June, they were upset that the arena would not be available in September, which means potentially they would not be prepared to organize scheduling with Muskoka-Parry Sound Hockey League in October, and their whole season could be in jeopardy.
“When the announcement came up from the municipality, we were very surprised about that, in that we were not consulted,” said Morissette. “We did not know anything about this … I don’t think they had entirely all of the hockey input from Storm. They didn’t really know what kind of impact that would have on the fall … Dysart’s been awesome, they’ve been great, they’ve communicated well up until this particular situation, which we did express, we really would appreciate, if it’s going to affect programming, and it’s going to be something that’s really, really dramatic, like this announcement, that greater communication could certainly be used ahead of time.”
Morissette said the team’s goal as an association, and his as president, was to go through the season knowing they would be getting the association through a pandemic, and aiming for stability and continuity while carefully following public health guidelines.
“So those two things are really, really important,” he said. “If we can keep our association strong and together and our members healthy, and our volunteers healthy, and everything good and sort of united and get that organized through the season as some kind of programming for kids, throughout this whole process, then that was really the number one goal.”
In a conversation he had with Kennedy, who he praised for his advocacy, Morissette said he told him that the Storm was “totally supportive of the vaccination program, there’s no question about that.”
Morissette also said he cares for youth mental health, which he has seen diminished this year, though he said the Storm has been fortunate in that they’ve been able to play when other leagues, including MPS, as well as teams in Lindsay and Toronto-area have been shut down.
“Kids really need to have something positive down the road,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation for parents to go home to say, listen buddy, your hockey’s not going to start for another month longer next year, and we don’t know what that’s going to mean. There’s a lot of instability there. What youth need to hear is that the hope is, we’re going to be back, and things will be hopefully better, and maybe the perimeters will be different because we’re hoping the vaccines will roll out.”
Morissette, a high school teacher, hopes the needs of youth in the community will be considered.
“What we do find often times, is that youth organizations, youth things, they don’t necessarily get a lot of attention,” said Morissette. “They’re not adults, they’re just kids, and sometimes we forget that they’re still important, I know they don’t make up as much of our population here, we don’t have as many kids as we do older folks and seniors, but we need to really think about organizations that involve youth because they are our future, and we want to basically make things where young families are encouraged to participate and settle in our area and the area can grow and prosper and retain youth. Youth programs are something that I think we need to make sure we are cognizant of the value of them. If anything I would like to see more youth programs in our area.”
Morissette said he’s hopeful an alternative vaccination clinic can be set up that doesn’t require use of ice pad space, as it has been in other communities.
At press time, a location that can open as a vaccination clinic in June when the A.J. LaRue arena closes had not been announced.
“A number of locations were presented to the health unit over the past eight weeks, however, all were deemed not appropriate by the health unit,” said Kennedy. “The new agreement will get us into the nicer weather, and there should be additional more stable vaccines in use by then. This will allow us to explore more vaccination site options. Nothing has been confirmed as yet … By mid-June it is felt that with the addition of more stable vaccines that a) more temporary sites such as fire halls, etc. could be used and b) the weather [will be] much more conducive to us setting up a more permanent site such as a large drive-through tent in the municipal parking lot similar to what is happening in other locations [such as Lindsay].”
Kennedy said a number of local businesses had been “more than happy to cooperate on an as-needed basis subject to availability, but understandably unable to commit for an extended block of time. One such business that needs to be recognized is Pinestone who made their ballroom available this week for a HHHS immunization clinic for first responders.”
“None of the decisions we have had to make from the beginning of the pandemic have been taken lightly, and all of them have been done in a committee structure so there is a lot of bouncing thoughts back and forth before there is consensus,” said Roberts. “We all want to do our best for the community and ensure everyone can get their vaccine when their turn comes. I am hopeful that with the temperature stable vaccines, the ability for pharmacies to disperse, and with some pop-up clinics this summer, as well as having the S.G. Nesbitt arena confirmed, we will have ample opportunity to get our vaccines.”