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Lac La Biche County offices restrict access as council reacts to COVID

'It's a marathon, not a sprint,' says La La Biche County senior administrator in coping with COVID
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On the heels of closing the recreation facilities at the Bold Center, the Plamondon arena and the Portage Pool, Lac La Biche County administrators and council have now closed their municipal offices to the general public.

Effective today, Thursday, and lasting for an undetermined time, the municipal offices at McArthur Place and the County Centre will not allow access to the public.

The measure, an attempt to reduce the spread of the pandemic COVID-19 virus, will affect residents who visit the centres to pay bills or inquire directly with staff about municipal matters.

“Staff will continue to be available via phone or email, and procedures are in place to allow the public to continue to contact the County and receive essential services,” notes the information released by county officials yesterday.

Paying a bill?

For residents who have historically delivered utility payments in person at the centres, municipal officials have created a digital portal to help residents pay through authorized credit card payment or to expand their online banking to include the municipality as a payee.  For those without online banking access, county officials are advising they go to their financial institutions, where payments can also be made.

Deferred payments

In recent days, financial institutions across the country have announced deferral plans for customers with loans or mortgages who may be facing temporary layoffs and temporary reductions in income. Lac La Biche County officials say they too are considering utility payment deferrals — but have yet to iron out any details.

No state of emergency

At a special meeting of council held Tuesday — St. Patrick's Day — councillors may have been hoping for a little luck o the Irish as they were updated by their senior administrators, and an Internal Covid Team, made up of staff about recent decisions and future planning. Despite the closures and changes, there was some good news delivered.

“We are not, right now, in a state of local emergency,” said acting CAO Dan Small, explaining that even if it happens, the term does not mean additional funding supports. If a local state of emergency is called by the mayor and council, it is in place for seven days at a time, and can be renewed after review.

While a state of emergency can force specific actions, the decisions to close the Bold Center, swimming pool and Plamondon arena were not part of that decision-making avenue.

Small said that when the province issued an Alberta-wide closure of schools and post-secondary institutions, it only made sense to close the places that attracted large groups of people.

“If kids just started going to the Bold Center, it would negate the effects of the school closures,” he said, adding that all staff from the pool, Bold Center and Plamondon arena will continue to be paid while the facilities are closed.

“The decision was made to pay staff in all three of those groups their regular wages .. and those not in those categories, we expect to show up for work.”

Of the 160 full-time Lac La Biche County staff, a general absentee rate is about 10, said Small, explaining that three-times that amount were reported absent from work on Tuesday, “and there’s probably going to be more tomorrow,” he told council.

How officials will deal with absent staff during the COVID-19 event was a discussion councillors held behind closed doors. Also on the discussion table in the private session were discussions administration was having with Alberta Health Services officials. Dan said those talks were protected under the Freedom of Information and Privacy under Public Safety protocols.

During the open session of the meeting, councillors were told to plan for a long duration — and more uncertainty than they might be used to.

“People have said, this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” said Small, explaining that much of the information his office receives is directly from either Alberta Health Services or Alberta Health. “We take our lead from senior levels of government.”

He also reminded council that events are happening quickly, with policies being enacted and enforced with little notice given.

When some on council expressed concern they weren’t informed soon enough that the Bold Center would be closing, with some saying they learned about it from the Lac La Biche POST first, Small said the decision came very quickly.

Fast moving information

As an example of that, last Sunday’s announcement from provincial leaders that all schools would be closed effective Monday was the first time local school officials had heard about it.

In a press release issued by Northern Lights Public Schools on Wednesday, their spokespeople responded to an earlier question by the POST, asking if their officials knew about the closures.

"As we only learned of classes being cancelled at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, we have not yet had an opportunity to determine what the process will be ..." stated a press release issued from NLPS on Monday, relating to the return of school fees, along with several other concerns school officials had received from the public.

Press releases from NLPS can be found HERE.

Wash your hands

No official statement was made by the mayor or council at Wednesday's special meeting, with Mayor Omer Moghrabi saying many of the roles are still being defined as information moves quickly. 

Small agreed that it is a challenging situation to get ahead of.

"There has been such a lot of things happening in the last three or four days that we have never seen before."

Amid all the global changes, work interruptions, financial burdens and health issues, the one constant message shared by Lac La Biche County council and administration was the preventative measures that community members must be following. 

"The big thing is that we all have to wash our hands, and stay at home if we feel ill," said Small.

Despite the closure of the McArthur Place building to the general public, the Lac La Biche County website still has March 24 identified as a regular meeting day.

The POST has contacted municipal officials for clarification on upcoming council meetings or cancellations.





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