ST. PAUL - Town of St. Paul staff reported a long day of responding to emails and phone calls on Monday, prior to council's regular evening meeting, where a lengthy discussion took place regarding Town facilities and the province's Restrictions Exemption Program (REP) amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the end, council opted to implement the REP at the CAP Arena, Clancy Richard Arena and curling rink for adult user groups and spectators, but not youth user groups or their spectators. The chosen option will allow youth sport to continue without proof of vaccination, and will also allow for adult recreation to continue under the province's current guidelines.
The Sept. 27 council meeting was supposed to include a delegation by St. Paul Minor Hockey president Bryce Balmer, who was unable to attend. He provided council with a letter, which was read out loud by Mayor Maureen Miller.
Balmer wrote in opposition of the municipality imposing the REP for youth sports. He anticipated that if the REP was put in place, the St. Paul Minor Hockey Association would lose about 30 per cent of its membership. He also noted that if the REP were to be placed on youth themselves - requiring proof of vaccination to participate - that would further add to a reduction in membership.
In his letter, Balmer noted the one third capacity limits set forth by the province in place of the REP would be easy to enforce in the Clancy Richard Arena, and steps would be taken to ensure the guidelines were met at the smaller, adjacent CAP Arena.
He noted the difference between St. Paul and other neighbouring communities such as Bonnyville and Lac La Biche is that the arenas are not part of a larger facility, such as a field house, swimming pool, or workout area.
His letter was "not meant to undermine the COVID crisis," wrote Balmer. But, he explained that his job is to look out for the membership of the association and to be a voice for the sport of hockey.
Speaking to the topic later in the meeting, CAO Steven Jeffery said Town of St. Paul staff, including himself, had received a number of phone calls and emails on Monday and had spend a lot of time dealing with the topic. He alluded briefly to the fact that not all feedback was respectful.
Jeffery explained the recommendation put before council was done with a lot of thought and with the intention of keeping activities happening. If the Town did not enforce the REP for adult groups, those activities would have to cease.
He also noted that there are "many, many ways to interpret" the provincial guidelines.
The CAO recommended the St. Paul Aquatic Centre could continue to operate at one third capacity and not implement the REP. This means that Aquafit would have to pause, and the REP could be implemented at a later date, if required.
Implementing the REP at some facilities will have a cost associated with it, due to the Town having to ensure the rules are being followed. While Jeffery initially pegged that number at $1,000 to $2,000 a week, he later said that number would likely change.
Coun. Norm Noel made the motion to proceed with administration's recommended option. He thanked everyone who had reached out to the Town and council for their feedback. But, he added that at the end of the day, councillors are "normal people" and are not medical professionals.
Unfortunately, the provincial government has downloaded these decisions onto municipalities, said Noel.
"We're just trying to pick a lane and drive a straight truck," said Coun. Brad Eamon, speaking in agreement with Noel. "It's been challenging."
Eamon spoke in favour of the recommendation, saying it was likely the best way to move forward.
When asked for clarity around spectators at youth sports, administration explained that some spectators will be allowed to attend.
As per Alberta Health Services guidelines, youth sports will follow the one third capacity rule, "attendees are limited to a single household (not necessarily immediate family). If you are an attendee that lives alone, than you may bring up to two close contacts with you," further explained Jeffery, after the meeting.
Coun. Ron Boisvert said he was happy to see administration offer a number of options because at first it appeared to be a no-win situation.
Jeffery said administration had been canvasing other municipalities in the area to see what approach they were taking.
"We've really been trying to find a common ground," he said, further adding, "There's been a lot of misinformation." He explained that it is simply not true that youth need to be vaccinated to take part in sport.
"If you are a youth, you are a youth."
Coun. Tyson deMoissac spoke out against the recommendation, saying, "where does it stop?"
Miller responded, stating the municipality must follow the province's orders.
Coun. Nathan Taylor also offered his thoughts during discussions. At a previous council meeting, Taylor described the REP as a dangling carrot, meant to encourage people to get vaccinated. He says he now sees the situation differently, and doesn't believe the province gave municipalities a carrot to dangle, but instead a stick.
"Health care is not our responsibility," said Taylor. Although vaccines maybe have been the right decision for him and his family, he acknowledged that it may not be the right decision for everyone.
Taylor said he was worried about the division that vaccinations have caused, and he is also worried about the health care system locally. He offered an example of a two-year-old child he personally knows who was COVID positive and reportedly turned away at the local hospital for treatment.
He also expressed concern over the fact that the REP may actually result in an increase in transmission of COVID-19. The program allows more choice for people and more opportunities to move around.
Taylor stated that in his opinion, the province is just weeks away from another major lockdown.
Miller offered her support for the recommended option, saying it was the most inclusive to the community, and the recommendation actually only came on the table as an option that very morning.
The mayor affirmed that council does not shy away from controversial topics and the item was not added to the agenda at the last minute, or as a way to slip it under the rug, which some residents had accused the council of doing.
"We have to follow provincial orders," whether council agrees or not, she explained.
She also offered a few thoughts on some of the feedback received, and implored people to step back, go for a walk and hug their kids.
While "we do have compassion in out community," there were many unfair accusations made, said Miller. She encouraged people to show the compassion that she knows exists.
Following more discussions, Miller reminded councillors and those watching the meeting via livestream that the situation is very fluid and could change at any time.
Council voted in favour of the recommendation put forward by administration, with Coun. Tyson deMoissac voting against the motion.
A motion to hire staff to check needed documents at the door of the arena during adult recreation was also carried.