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City's arenas and ski hills may not open at all this winter

Council's latest COVID-19 update raises questions of impacts of provincewide shutdown
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(File photo)

Greater Sudbury continues to wrestle with the impacts of COVID-19 and the virus has hit the Nickel City harder in 2021 than it did at any point in 2020.

While provincial case numbers have been trending downward in the past few days, Sudbury had another 13 positive cases on Jan. 26, and sit at its highest-ever number of active cases throughout the course of the pandemic, with 86.

The city's response to the pandemic has created a financial crunch that has created a $14 million budget shortfall that will need to be closed in order to hit a target of a property tax rate increase of no more than 3.9 per cent.

At the service level, provincial orders have shut down a number of municipal services and some of them are coming up against a serious time crunch as January winds to a close.

Executive director of strategic initiatives, communications and citizen services Ian Wood provided council with a COVID-19 update on Jan. 26, with a decidedly different tone than many past reports, looking more closely at the present situation and what the coming weeks may hold.

"Our community does have challenges recently with COVID-19 and in fact as we sit here this evening we're at 85 active cases which I believe is the highest that we've had throughout the pandemic," said Wood.

"The province has instituted a provincewide shutdown, stay-at-home order and that is in place until Feb. 11, at which point if it's not extended, and there is some question that it could be extended, but if it's not extended then we would revert back to the colour coding system."

Wood says that he expects there will be news from the provincial government by Feb. 8 or 9 with indications as to what will happen on Feb. 11.

"The vaccines for our long-term care residents and high-risk seniors home residents are coming into the community which is quite a positive sign for us and the intent from public health is that those residents that wish to be vaccinated will be vaccinated by the end of next week, Feb. 5."

Though the virus has had its most severe impact on the elderly population, children have felt the impacts as well, as many have been learning from home, cut off from their friend groups and leisure activities that help make the winter months more enjoyable.

Ward 7 Coun. Mike Jakubo raised a question about the city's arenas that house Greater Sudbury's minor hockey leagues, along with figure skating and more.

"Obviously all arenas across the province are shut down unless it's an NHL arena, do we have any kind of a drop dead date with our arenas here?" asked Jakubo. 

"I saw in our report that we are looking at possible consolidation of our arenas for the rest of the season based on demand that we're getting from different user groups. Is there any kind of date where we're going to say if we're locked down until Feb. 28 we're just not going to re-open the arenas this year for ice sports?"

Discussions have been ongoing between the city and ice user groups to get a feel for what the demand would be, but the calendar is not working in favour of either side at this point.

"Typically the regular seasons would end at the end of March, but we are still consulting with groups so no decision has been made at this point,"said Tyler Campbell, director of social services.

Ward 11 Coun. Bill Leduc posed a similar question about the city's ski hills, with Campbell again indicating that no decision has been made, however the signs are becoming more and more clear that there may not be a ski season this winter.

"We haven't made a final decision on ski hills as of yet, we have however stopped making more snow and I believe we've redeployed some of the staff from ski hills," said Campbell.

Ward. 6 Coun. Rene Lapierre, who also sit on the Public Health Sudbury and Districts board, says he has received a number of messages from residents with questions about mask policies on the city's GOVA transit buses.

"I'm just wondering what is our policy for mask wearing on transit and how does that work, if they do have a medical condition that exempts them from wearing a mask do we have any other policies to promote the use of shields or any other type of protective equipment?" said Lapierre.

The city's transit director, Michelle Ferrigan indicated that her department has received similar calls of concern around masks on public transit, while stating that GOVA transit operators don't hold any type of authority when it comes to masks on buses.

"Residents have been required to wear masks on buses since July 8, of course unless they fall under any of the exemptions such as medical reasons," said Ferrigan.

"In terms of face shields I believe those are good as additional measures but don't qualify as a face covering as per public health. What we're doing is we're enforcing the policy and we have a very robust communication plan."

Posters, notifications on the bus doors and scrolling marquees on the headway of buses all indicate that masks are required, along with notices inside of the bus and in the transit terminal. 

"It's highly unlikely that someone who uses the service is not aware of the policy in that the masks are mandatory," said Ferrigan. 

"That being said, with the variety of exemptions in place, the enforcement of the legal requirement is a little challenging. Aside from promoting the policy, we do have to rely on passengers' good faith and trust that they're following the law. Our operators will remind some people at times if they're not wearing a mask that it's mandatory, but when they're told that there's some type of exemption, either medical or other, they're not allowed to ask for proof of that exemption."

With council scheduled for two special meetings focused on homelessness in the next two days, Campbell provided a quick update on what's being done behind the scenes.

"We are seeing a bit of a trend in terms of an increased demand for warming centres; staff have reached out to current providers to look at expanding capacity a bit more," said Campbell.

"I expect to have some more information in regards to cost this week so that we can make that decision. The other is we've expanded the hours at the youth warming shelter and overnight shelter to increase some time and to take some pressure off the main warming centre in the morning for the breakfast period. We are looking at that and we will bring back further information to council."