The Mayor of Fort Frances is encouraging people to observe physical distancing and self-isolation guidelines, even if the town hasn't seen many cases of COVID-19 compared to other parts of the world.
Mayor June Caul spoke with the Times late last week and again this week to provide a number of updates around several town functions during the COVID-19 pandemic, including physical distancing, when committee and town council meetings will resume, and the efforts to help Fort Frances' homeless population.
She noted that even though the district isn't seeing case numbers like parts of Southern Ontario and the rest of Canada, it's vitally important to follow guidelines set in place to slow the spread -or 'flatten the curve'- of COVID-19.
“I'm really proud of the control group we have here, and proud of the decisions that Council and the town have made in how to handle it; handle this whole situation to keep us as safe as possible before anything hits,” Caul said.
“So far, we've been very lucky, but I think it's because of our remoteness and because we're so far from Southern Ontario, where it's been hit so drastically. I'm holding my breath because every day I think 'oh, we're going to hear that somebody here has become infected and it may hit us,' but I'm hoping that it doesn't.”
Still, Caul said it's important to recognize that the complications from COVID-19 can be serious and have been shown to affect a wider range of the population than just the elderly.
“If everybody would please realize how dangerous this is, when you listen to the news and hear the hundreds of deaths in places everywhere around the world every day,” she stressed.
“It's serious and we really do have to keep our distance and wash our hands and not touch our faces and all the things that the medical health officers have been telling us.”
Even as a number of businesses and services have shut down because of COVID-19, Caul said that she's been keeping an eye on a number of issues that still concern her and taking steps to see those issues addressed.
“I have been in contact with both our federal and provincial representatives,” she explained.
"I voiced my opinion about how concerned I was about the homeless. I was voicing my opinion about people still coming back and forth across the border and who really should be doing that and they were going to check into that... and I voiced my concern about the fact that apparently the mine is supposed to open up again. I've voiced that opinion with both both ministers, because there is a lot of transient people that seem to come and go from there and they're in close proximity to each other when they're working and it's not an essential service. So both ministers did tell me... that they would check into things and get back to me.
Even as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on, municipal affairs have begun to move forward as well, if in a different format than they would normally take. In mid-March the Town of Fort Frances announced that council and committee meetings would be suspended as the scope of the COVID-19 outbreak began to widen, and most meetings since then had been cancelled, excluding the emergency control services group.
“Our emergency control services group has met, by teleconference of course, very regularly,” Caul said.
“I feel that we really did a good job, especially the first week, at getting most of the things in order that needed to be done to keep the entire town safe.”
Even though it seems like the town should have been able to move to online meetings easily, Caul explained that restrictions from the province had to be dealt with first.
“We had to pass a bylaw ourselves in order to implement what's come down from the province about having teleconferences for Council meetings,” Caul said on Friday.
“We are planning on starting our executive committee meetings [the week of April 6]. I know the clerk just told me that our planning and development meeting, that will be cancelled. There's really nothing on the agenda. Things have slowed down so much because of this, but we are planning on starting those up and those will all be done virtually as well, and so we'll start having regular Council meetings again, I would assume probably a week from Monday, [April 6]. It'll be open to the public virtually for sure.”
Sitting as a part of the emergency control services group is the Rainy River district Social Services Administration Board (RRDSSAB). At the time of Caul's initial phone call there was still a lot of uncertainty around how money earmarked by the provincial govenrment for assisting the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic would be accessed and used, and even as those questions have been answered this week, Caul noted that both the town and RRDSSAB had been working trying to solve the problems to the homeless population in light of the pandemic and physical distancing recommendations.
“We're kind of in a rough situation here because really we have no place to house people,” Caul said on Friday.
“This is so unprecedented and I think that's the same with was any town or city you go to right now. Yes, they have shelters for people to come and eat and they have shelters for people to rest at night, but no place where they can be taken so that they can be quarantined properly from one another, and again with us in town here there's no place that we could give them that would be a proper facility with proper washrooms and showers and those kinds of things for them.”
Since that phonecall, the RRDSSAB has announced they have entered an agreement with the Sleepy Owl Motel to house some of the town's homeless population and provide them with a measure of self-isolation in order to prevent the spread or mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 in that community. Even as Caul acknowledged the work that the control group did in order to come up with an arrangement that would help protect this vulnerable population in Fort Frances, she noted that there was only so much the town could do by itself.
“I know some people think that the town and Council should be looking after this, but it's not part of what Town Council is supposed to do for the town,” Caul explained.
“We look after making sure that we've got good water. This goes above and beyond [what the town and council are suppoosed to be doing] because we do pay a levy every year to DSSAB for social services, and this is really something that should be handled by social services and housing. So I've suggested when people have asked about it that they call our provincial and federal representatives and take it from there.”
Still, Caul said it's good for everyone that an arrangement was able to be made, as she wants to make sure that even those experiencing homelessness can stay as safe as possible.
“We wouldn't want anybody who is homeless already, we don't want to see them become sick,” she said.
“We want to make sure that they're taken care of like everybody else is able to be.”