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Managing a pandemic – the City's response to COVID-19

It’s may seem a lifetime has passed since March 17 ­– the day the Government of Alberta declared a State of Emergency and the City of Airdrie declared a State of Local Emergency. Much has changed in those 10 weeks. Mandatory closures have forced many Albertans to remain home, created some of the worst unemployment rates in the province’s history and upended daily life. Through it all, Airdrie has maintained low numbers of COVID-19 cases.

“I think the community has done a fantastic job, for the most part, of living within the framework of new health guidelines and really promoting all of the safety and health practices as it relates to spreading the virus," Mayor Peter Brown said. “We're a community of 70,000 with under 50 cases [of COVID-19] – that's pretty good.”

Citizens have also displayed an outpouring of kindness and generosity, which Brown said is not surprising given Airdrie’s record of community support. In the days and weeks following the March 17 “lock down,” messages of encouragement began popping up throughout the city as Airdonians sought volunteer roles, hosted social-distancing parades, rallied around local restaurants by ordering takeout, spread cheer through “window walks" and more. The community was also quick to support essential services workers by writing messages of thanks on fences and pavement; making and donating masks, caps and laundry bags; and using 3-D printers to create much-needed protective gear.

“We have an amazing community. When the chips are down and people need help, need support, the community's there to rally behind them. It's been so amazing to see," Brown said.

The goodwill of Airdronians wasn't limited to community members and local businesses. Brown said residents have sent messages of support not only to himself but to City staff. As an essential service, City workers have been tasked to remain on the job and Brown said they’ve done “a lot of great work.”

 “If there's anything good that comes out of the pandemic, you really recognize where you live, who lives here and what makes a great community,” he said.

While the community has come together, the uncertainty of the situation has tested the City's response procedures. Brown said one of the biggest hurdles for the municipality was the daily influx of information.

The mayor praised the work of City staff, in particular the work done to keep residents informed. He said the result of that effort is an additional 1,500 myAIRDRIE accounts and a "much larger following" on City social media accounts.

“When you have something that is driven by health, that's driven by the provincial government, that now plays down to the municipal government levels – I think you're always having challenges because the target keeps moving,” he said. “You  kind of always feeling like you're a little bit behind, but I think we did a really good job of reacting to what was put in front of us.”

As an example, Brown said while the province gave the go-ahead to reopen playgrounds, it wasn't that simple for the municipality. The City had to ensure the 76 playgrounds it maintains were safe to use before their opening on May 22, as the yearly audit had been postponed when the pandemic hit. Signage was also required to outline current mass-gathering regulations and advise the equipment was not sanitized.

While he knows the municipality can’t please everyone, the mayor said he’s been amazed by the positive reaction from the majority of citizens.

“When you have these types of situations, oftentimes, people are very critical of anything that you do. I would say it's the opposite, that people have been supportive,” Brown said.

However, the economic impact from the pandemic remains a hurdle to overcome.

In April, Alberta reported one of the highest unemployment rates in Canada. At 13.4 per cent, a 4.7 per cent spike from the March, the Statistics Canada numbers highlighted the devastating effect the virus has had on the economy.

Locally, Brown said he knows many businesses continued to be restricted from open and he’s “really worried about them.” He also worries about the many Airdronians who have lost their jobs and said he's glad the federal government has provided some financial support for those individuals. Though Brown praised the provincial government’s interim solution to defer rent, taxes and utilities, he warned, “you can defer it but if you're not back in business in September, that just becomes a huge mountain to climb.”

Municipal tax deferrals have hit the City's bottom line. The closure of Genesis Place Recreation Centre and City-operated sportsfields has also contributed to revenue loss. Brown said when Genesis Place does reopen, the revenue produced from the facility will be limited as it will likely open at reduced capacity.  

"We're concerned on the business level, our revenue has dropped significantly," he said. “We'll see a first-quarter deficit that's close to $3.5 million. And that's with making significant changes to the operation.”

Some operational changes included laying off 184 casual employees on March 20 and the closure of multiple facilities, including the March 24 closure of City Hall.

Though the mayor remains hopeful as the number of new COVID-19 cases in Alberta decreases, he is concerned the public has demonstrated complacency as the relaxation of provincial restrictions has occurred.

“People are thinking, ‘Oh the rules are off,’…[and] people aren't as preventative in their behaviour,” he said.

“Let's stop this thing. My concern going forward is that that's not going to occur.”

Brown reminds residents to maintain six-feet of physical distance and to practice frequent hand washing and social distancing.   

Stage 2 of the plan will not move forward until June 19 at the earliest, Premier Jason Kenney said May 14, and will only proceed if the province deems it appropriate. The mayor is hopeful more businesses and facilities will be allowed to reopen sooner than initially anticipated, including the Chinook Winds Spray Park. Though currently scheduled to reopen in Stage 3, Brown said there is "a good possibility" it could open in Stage 2.

“The hardest thing, I think, for everyone to deal with is the uncertainty," he said. “There's so much information to digest and data that that needs to be understood as it relates to this virus and how it spreads, when it spreads, why it spreads, that it makes it so hard to predict the future. But I'm hopeful.”

To stay updated on the City's response to the pandemic, visit airdrie.ca