City council was closed to public on March 23 due to gathering rules brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Councillors, with the exception of Dan Boyd acting as deputy mayor, and the mayor participated in the meeting by phone. Chairs were separated and tables were added to make sure those at the meeting were an acceptable distance apart. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Whitehorse city council adjusts to a new reality amid COVID-19 pandemic

The impact of the pandemic is being felt across city departments

Front desk drop-in services at City Hall and other City of Whitehorse buildings has been suspended as social distancing efforts continue in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Officials made the announcement during the March 23 city council meeting that front desk drop-in services would be suspended beginning March 24. Signs were to be put in place at city buildings about the change, with residents encouraged to do city business online or by phone. If that’s not possible, residents can call ahead and make an appointment.

It was one of several moves outlined by city manager Linda Rapp when Coun. Samson Hartland asked administration for an update at the meeting. Hartland, like other council members with the exception of Coun. Dan Boyd, attended the session by phone. Boyd was on-hand to chair the meeting as deputy mayor with Mayor Dan Curtis stating by phone he is in isolation after travelling to British Columbia.

Before the meeting got underway, Curtis spoke about the pandemic. The city’s top priority is the health and safety of citizens and visitors, he stressed, going on to list measures like the closure of the Canada Games Centre, cleaning regiments now in place on city buses and having employees work from home wherever possible.

The city is continuing to monitor the situation closely and take direction from the territory’s chief medical officer of health.

It is upsetting to see so many long-standing events cancelled or postponed, he said, highlighting the impact on the community and encouraging residents to support local business.

“Please shop local whenever you can,” he said.

At the council meeting itself, city staff levels were also kept to a minimum with a little more than half a dozen senior management in council chambers at any one time. Department managers tasked with providing reports to council came in solely to present their reports, wiping down the table, chair and microphone before they departed chambers following their reports.

The gallery inside chambers has been closed to the public with residents requested to submit, in writing, any delegations they would have made. Those submissions will then be read into the record at the meeting. There were no such delegations made at the March 23 meeting.

Along with outlining the suspension of front desk services, Rapp also reviewed measures instituted earlier this week that eliminate transit and parking-meter fees until at least April 13. Cleaning efforts have been increased substantially; social distancing measures are in place on buses; and indoor recreation facilities like the CGC closed.

As of March 24, playgrounds, parks, trails and cemeteries were open, but the city is reminding residents to respect social distancing recommendations to stay six feet away from others and to have a maximum gathering size of 10.

Rapp made it clear a number of times throughout the meeting that city officials will continue following the direction of the territory’s chief medical officer of health, Brendan Hanley.

Rapp said the city had already been working on its business continuity plan before the public health emergency was declared.

The plan looks at how city departments would operate with reduced staff resources at 25 per cent, 50 per cent and 75 per cent. In an interview following the meeting, Rapp said there have been no layoffs by the city, but some staff are reassigned to other duties (administrative staff have taken on things like updating city documents, for example); many are working from home; and some are choosing to take leave, vacation time or banked overtime in light of COVID-19.

For those working in positions requiring a physical presence at work, lunch breaks have been staggered and vehicle allocation has been looked at to reduce the number of workers using city vehicles and inside the vehicles at one time.

“Wherever we can, we’re making adjustments to service delivery,” she told council.

The city will also allow recyclables to be included in waste coming into the landfill after the closure of local recycling options. Recyclables will also not be collected separately at the landfill as is normally done because those recyclables are taken to Raven Recycling. The city is asking those who can to hang on to their recyclables until Raven Recycling and P&M Recycling reopen.

City officials have also informed the Yukon government it has had requests for property taxes to be deferred.

Taxes are normally due the first business day after Canada Day.

As Valerie Braga, director of corporate services, explained after the meeting, the territory’s tax act sets out the deadline for property taxes to be paid and the penalties thereafter.

“We have raised the issue with (YG),” Rapp told city council.

The territory has put together a working group to look at the economic impact of the COVID-19 situation and this is among the issues the city is taking to the territory. Braga also said after the meeting inquiries have come in about postponing utility fee payments, with city staff available to work out payment plans and other arrangements on an individual basis as it does regularly.

City projects are continuing where possible, though timelines will be impacted.

Rapp cited the Official Community Plan rewrite as an example. That work typically includes a number of public and stakeholder meetings that likely cannot happen now.

Similarly, planning manager Melodie Simard brought forward a recommendation to move ahead with an OCP amendment for the tank farm area. While the recommendation would see council vote on first reading next week and a public hearing then held, she said staff are currently looking at whether a public hearing can happen as outlined in the territory’s Municipal Act. If it can’t given the ban on public gatherings of more than 10 and the city’s ban on having the public inside council chambers, Simard said the city can postpone the hearing after first reading is passed.

As city officials look ahead to the summer, Rapp said department managers have been asked to review their plans and carefully consider what staff will be needed.

“The grass is still going to grow,” she said of the need to hire staff through the summer months.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com

CoronavirusWhitehorse city council

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