COVID-19 is a crisis; then comes the hangover

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We’ve been so focused, since mid-March, on the immediacy of the health threat from COVID-19 that we’ve had little time to think of the aftermath.

It was always abundantly clear that our return to normal life from the pandemic would not be like the flipping of a switch. And now that things appear to have quieted down enough to bring us to Stage 2 of the recovery, it’s becoming clearer just how nebulous that transition will be.

Mayor Jason Baker earlier this week introduced a concept many of us did not stop to ponder: The transition from a public health justification to keeping things closed, to a financial one.

You can think of it as a post-COVID hangover. As the health threat subsides – and we can’t take for granted, just yet, that it will continue subsiding – things won’t have to remain closed for health reasons anymore. But the city will be staring at a pandemic-generated financial disaster that it must deal with, as much as possible, in 2020. And that might mean keeping things closed even longer to cut costs.


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“We are transitioning from not opening it because we weren’t allowed to open it, to: It’s in the state it’s in because that’s a decision of council based on financial implications,” said the mayor.

Now that the local COVID-19 caseload is slowing down, and we are in Phase 2, other municipalities will end up opening services while the city does not, and in many cases the city’s motivation might be to keep down next year’s inevitable post-COVID tax increase.

City councillors are to have a more thorough discussion later this month on which services they would like to see reopen as things loosen up, and the financial implications – whether reopening a particular service brings in money for the city, or whether it’s a net cost – will very much be part of the equation.

It’s also important to remember that some services are a lot more complicated to reopen, in a pre-COVID-vaccine era, than they sound.

Public washrooms were one case mentioned at council on Tuesday. It would seem obvious to reopen the restrooms on Blockhouse Island as more and more people exit their cars for a stroll, but in the era of the continuing pandemic there are much costlier standards.

“It’s quite challenging to manage,” said city manager Janette Loveys. “It really means having somebody stationed at the actual public washroom and cleaning the facility after every use.”

Public washrooms, then, are among those services that will be expensive to resume not only in and of themselves, but also because of the added requirement to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.


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“I’m not willing to open facilities or services at any expense,” said Coun. Larry Journal.

“If we have to have someone on staff at a public bathroom, 24-seven, or while it’s open, I think that’s an expense that the public are going to have a hard time rationalizing.”

Coun. Matt Wren, on the other hand, warned councillors they need to take a hard look at the details before becoming the ones who keep people from enjoying the summer.

The vast majority of COVID-19 cases, noted Wren, were in Lanark County, not in the southern portion of our health unit’s territory.

“We had extremely few cases in Leeds and Grenville and the likelihood of any of us contracting COVID by governing ourselves safely and washing our hands and going about our daily lives in Brockville is pretty remote at this point in time,” said Wren.

“It’s that breaking point that I think people are at,” he added, emphasizing he understands the public health concerns.

“We need to take a closer look and see what we can do.”

And while costs are always an important consideration, the lack of open public washrooms on Blockhouse Island has, let us say, other consequences.

“I witnessed for myself what people will do when they need to use the washroom and there’s no washroom,” said Wren.

“It’s not very pleasant and it’s not very healthy.”

Enough said. All kinds of considerations, from biology to public health, will emerge when that reopening discussion happens in less than two weeks.


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But the mayor wants it known that, as the risk of contracting the virus diminishes, the city’s stark financial predicament will demand greater attention.

“Let’s be frank,” said the mayor. “This council has talked for the last 10 to 12 weeks about health, and that’s the reason why services aren’t being delivered, was health. As that reason gets moved off the table, the new reason for how we’re going to do things is going to be, in some cases, our desire to deliver services that people are used to, versus what the tax increase would be to pay for it.”

City hall reporter Ronald Zajac can be reached at Rzajac@postmedia. com.