‘We are in this together’ municipal leaders say

By Chad Ingram

While regular municipal processes including council meetings have been cancelled for the time being amid the COVID-19 pandemic municipal work continues moved from the council table to the kitchen table.

"This is my 14th year on council and I've been involved in several emergency planning exercises but nothing could have prepared anyone for this" Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts told the Echo in an email. "There isn't one person in the county or Dysart who is not affected by this. Our main street is a ghost town and the latest news is that construction will come to a grinding halt. This is devastating to the economy in our area but the health risk is so great that this must be done."

On Friday the provincial government announced a shortened list of "essential" businesses are permitted to continue to operate amid the ongoing pandemic including reductions in the kinds of construction projects that are permitted to continue. Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency in Ontario over COVID-19 on March 17.

The County of Haliburton and most of its lower-tier townships have declared their own states of emergency and local councils have suspended their regular meetings delegating authority to either a team consisting of their mayors and chief administrative officers or emergency management groups to make decisions and sign paperwork to allow the day-to-day operations of the municipalities to continue.

Each municipality has an emergency management group -sometimes called an emergency operations centre or emergency operations group – led by its community emergency manager co-ordinator typically the fire chief and consisting of some members of council and a cross-section of department heads.

"The EOC has been doing a fantastic job and I've been so impressed with the ingenuity and resilience of our staff to accommodate to the ever-changing landscape of requirements" Roberts wrote. "I am still working a lot and have a nice home office area so that's lucky. There are still lots of things happening at Dysart and so many emails and calls to make. I go in person to our emergency meetings there are only four of us in the room the rest are on teleconference."

The province has granted municipal councils permission to hold virtual meetings in times of emergency and Roberts said the technical logistics of having digital council meetings for Dysart et al are being explored.

"We are hoping to reconvene meetings by the end of May they will look a lot different but we still need to meet legislative requirements so we need to figure things out with the IT department and our clerk" she wrote. "We want to be able to have delegations and our meetings must be accessible to the public."

In Highlands East Mayor Dave Burton also praised the work of municipal staff and members of the municipality's EOC amid a backdrop of continually changing directives from the province and federal government.

"I am proud of our staff and the EOC for the way they are handling this difficult and unfamiliar situation" Burton wrote in an email to the Echo . "We are collectively working as a group to come up with solutions and provide messaging to the public quickly and accurately. I am regularly in contact with my counterparts throughout the county to try and provide consistent messaging. On that note I maintain contact with our CAO and staff on a daily basis and as often as is required; 24/7 if need be. We all understand that things change on a continual basis and contact with my CAO and staff is as needed. Our CAO and staff have all stepped up and are in contact on a daily basis through our EOC meetings."

Both Burton and Roberts are feeling the stressful effects of the situation and trying to remain positive.

"As a mayor these are unsettling times" Burton wrote. "I am a family man myself. Not only am I … worried about the health and safety of my loved ones but I also need to look out for the well-being of my staff our most vulnerable our first responders and the community as a whole; they are our No. 1 priority. These are the times we plan for but hope never happen. The responsibility for implementing safeguards for our community is huge and one I take very seriously. While we are trying to practice 'business as usual' it has been somewhat challenging but we are trying to maintain business continuity to the public as best we can. I continue to stay positive about this situation and continue to be proactive by implementing procedures for the 'what ifs.' I would also like to take this opportunity to thank our local agencies and volunteer organizations such as the Central Food Network and the Wilberforce Foodland. I am so proud of all their efforts during this crisis to ensure our community continues to have access to the essentials."

Roberts is urging patience among residents something she admits she herself can have trouble with.

"I've always considered myself a positive optimistic person but I'm not always the most patient" she wrote. "I'm a doer and love to have a plan keep busy and get jobs done. What we all must do now is be patient listen to the health professionals and stay home. It's a time to be in the moment and let go of the things we have no control over. This will pass eventually and things will get better but no one [knows] how long it will take."

Roberts has been exercising baking doing grocery shopping for others and finding gratitude in the small things.

"I encourage people to stay as positive as they can and recognize this is stressful on all of us and we show it in different way and at different times" she wrote. "Don't judge others and find ways to help if you're able to. This is a marathon not a sprint so pace yourself."

Burton too encouraged residents to stay positive and to abide by directives to practice social distancing self-isolation and sanitization as much as possible.

"Please ensure you are practicing proper physical distancing and disinfection; we need to do all we can to flatten the curve of this virus" he wrote. "Please continue to care for others and look out for one another. We are in this together and together we will persevere."

Haliburton County Warden Liz Danielsen also strongly encouraged residents to abide by these directives.

"It is frustrating to see that some people albeit in fairly small numbers thank goodness seem to throw caution to the wind and insist on ignoring all the signs or professional advice and charge forward without thought of the risk they bring to themselves and others" Danielsen wrote in an email. "It is ironic that our safety lies in staying apart from each other when we need each other the most and I hope those careless few will finally come to understand that."

Danielsen said the ongoing pandemic is keeping her extremely busy.

"I've never had to manage this extraordinary volume of email before" she wrote. "Most of it is related to emergency planning or responses to our media outlets but some of it is from residents who need information and assurances. Fear is among us and we all have to fight to stay strong and positive to the greatest extent possible. Some people dwell on the numbers that cannot be avoided wherever they look and the numbers often simply increase the fear of this invisible menace."

Danielsen said she's proud of the way community leaders and first responders are pulling together to handle the unprecedented situation.

"I've taken training to manage emergencies and had no small amount of experience living in a small community faced with raging forest fires or floods but this situation comes with so many unknowns and it's difficult" she wrote. "I am so proud of our collective leadership group and even more of our emergency responders and health professionals. The skills that we have available here are extraordinary and we tap those resources to the greatest extent possible."

Like anyone the warden said she has some tough days amid the ongoing public health crisis.

"Living alone has its moments" Danielsen wrote. "I'm not putting anyone at risk with my coming and going and do as much work as I can from home although I'm still attending county emergency control group meetings in person for now. I'm well equipped with technology and prepared to the greatest extent possible for the days to come. But I also have moments of uncertainty and like everyone else even fear that needs to be fought off. I have a job to do and will continue to the best of my ability to help to keep everyone in this beautiful place we call home safe."