ANALYSIS: Orillia Council Question Period

By John Swartz

To date the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit lists 33 COVID-19 cases in the county, 5 are hospitalized, 3 have died. Of those, 4 confirmed infections are from Orillia, and 1 of those was hospitalized and subsequently died.

Along with provincial statistics of 1,117 confirmed cases, 8,690 under investigation and 19 deaths, and examining the experience in other countries we appear to be holding well compared to many other places. The difference being, how government leadership reacted.

But we have only just begun by comparison to statistical evidence and with established hockey stick part of the curve looming officials are preparing two things – measures to prevent COVID-19 following the trend here, in the province, and in the country are one side; being ready if things turn out similarly as other countries have experienced.

With this backdrop Orillia council met Thursday afternoon. There was no lengthy agenda; the meeting was an opportunity for council to ask questions of the emergency response team’s leadership (the mayor, CAO and fire chief). While the state of emergency exists, council has effectively a minor role, but Mayor Steve Clarke is not keeping them out of the loop.

There were a number of concerns and questions asked one would expect, with a few responses jumping out suggesting new approaches to navigating the crisis.

More Restrictions Coming?

In the response to councillor Rob Kloostra question about whether the Perch Festival will be cancelled, the discussion turned to all events and the provincial edict – no events with more than 50 people present. Mayor Steve Clarke said this might be changing soon.

“My strong suspicion is that number 50 is going to change a lot over the next number of days,” Clarke said.

“My personal opinion, almost every event is going to be cancelled over the next few weeks. This crisis is not going to get better, it’s going to get worse and I believe the restrictions from the federal government, the province and I would even suggest, from the municipality are going to get tighter and tighter.

In conversation with Simcoe North MPP Jill Dunlop Friday, a question regarding further restrictions was asked and if more restrictions of the public generally would have been necessary if the provisions already in place to ticket people were being applied.

She indicated that it was likely more restrictions would be announced soon and that the government has been reluctant to use fines to this point, and still prefer education, but they will if they have to.

We didn’t have to wait long. Saturday evening the Ontario government banned gatherings of more than 5 people at publicly organized events and social gatherings. There are some exceptions, the most sobering being limiting attendance at funerals to 10 people.

Saturday morning the prime minister said those showing signs of virus infection will not be allowed on public transportation vehicles starting Monday.

These events backed up the mayor’s viewpoint, more restrictions are coming.

Councillor Tim Lauer asked if the City has policing resources to enforce further restrictions. Fire chief Brent Thomas, chair of the emergency response team said the OPP say they would have to redeploy officers.

Orillia Fire Chief Brent Thomas

“Certainly it’s something they are considering, but currently they don’t have the resources to do that,’” said Thomas. There is a possibility the province may give more power to municipal by-law officers.

“This particular type of enforcement at the moment does not fall under their (by-law) purview, but my understanding from speaking with Ms. Dunlop, our MPP, and others is they are likely to be deputized through some sort of legislation,’ said Clarke.

If there is one thing people staying at home and physical distancing when they have to go out, and also observing others who appear to be carrying on as though it’s just another day, it’s they want authorities to get tougher on people who aren’t using the same playbook. Aside from recognizing how the actions, or inaction, of others are putting them in harm’s way many people clearly would rather hear of tickets being issued for those breaking emergency orders, than having their already restricted lives further restricted.

When Reality Visits Us

If deaths reach the proportional rate of countries with the worst numbers relative to population the big concern of officials is having the resources to deal with a spike in hospitalizations, and the alternative to recovering from the virus – above average numbers of deaths. Councillor Ralph Cipolla raised the issue regarding preparations for the latter.

“We do have that contingency laid out,” said Chief Thomas. Discussions have been had with Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital staff relating to their morgue capacity.  “We have a working group for an off-site facility… and a place to house those who have passed away until they can be processed.”

Previously SUNonline/Orillia published information regarding the ability of local funeral homes to cope and they say they have capacity. The bottleneck in the process could be the point between hospitalization ending and the ability of a larger number of families to make arrangements.

Cipolla also asked about shutting down Orillia Transit. The team said they hadn’t considered it, but would look into it. Several councillors thought it would not be a good idea to stop the system because too many people working at essential jobs need transportation.

The next council meeting is not scheduled. City Hall is closed to the public and meetings will be televised. Monday March 30th’s regular council meeting is postponed.


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