Mayor Ken Christian was supposed to be in Spokane this weekend, watching the second round of the NCAA’s March Madness men’s basketball tournament.
Instead, another type of madness has ensued, leading to his announcement on Friday in Kamloops on the steps of city hall — the declaration of a state of local emergency amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The declaration gives the city the opportunity to quickly address emerging issues for the purposes of enhancing preparedness and response to the pandemic and make decisions. In an effort to protect residents and employees, and practise social distancing, the city will be winding down non-essential services and implementing work-from-home protocols wherever possible.
Similar measures have been taken in other communities in British Columbia, essentially giving municipalities powers to move more quickly in its decision-making. States of local emergency were declared in Kamloops during flooding in 2015 and during wildfires in 2017. Making the announcement in response to a pandemic is unprecedented.
“I didn’t envision I would be here right now, but I know that being here now with this message is going to be the right thing for us to do, in terms of next week and how that looks for the citizens of Kamloops,” Christian told media during a mid-day press conference on Friday on the steps of city hall.
Christian said the decision to declare a state of emergency was made on the advice of the city’s Emergency Operations Centre, which was activated on March 16.
Not much has changed since Thursday, with respect to closures of various places in the city to the public. Despite moves by other communities to close playgrounds, those in Kamloops will remain open, as will dog parks, skateboard parks and green spaces.
“It’s a difficult situation because we don’t want people to be holed up in their basement,” the mayor said. “We want people to be out by themselves or as a family group, getting some fresh air or experiencing the outside. But do not congregate. That is really the issue in what we are talking about, so you don’t run the risk of expanding the infection beyond where it needs or is going.”
Christian said residents for the most part are adhering to advice from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry as it relates to social distancing (staying at least two metres/7.5 feet from one another) and not gathering in groups of 50 or more people.
He described city streets as “desolate.
“It’s kind of like Sunday afternoon,” Christian said. “Things are really ramped down.”
He remains unaware of any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Kamloops, but the mayor reiterated his previous message to the community dating back to his March 12 State of the City address, when he said the virus is likely already here.
As a result, people are staying home, leading to the closure of myriad businesses across all sectors and mass employee layoffs. Christian said he does not know how many of the city’s 5,000-plus business licence-holders have shuttered their doors, but the impact on the local economy remains firmly planted in his mind.
With Friday’s state of local emergency declaration, council and city committee meetings — including a regular council meeting planned for next Tuesday — are cancelled until further notice.
Though current procedural bylaws do not allow for council meetings over the phone or by video, the mayor said council would be talking on Friday afternoon. Christian said council intends to be part of the recovery.
“This is not going to end tomorrow,” Christian said. “This is going to take some time. When it does resolve, we’re not going to snap back to pre-COVID days and business volumes. We will have to rebuild.”
Considerations are being made to property tax relief and utility bill deferrals, though Christian stressed the province will need to pony up cash.
“We’re considering everything,” Christian said. “But again, we have a payroll to make, as well. We want to comply with whatever initiative is being suggested by the province of British Columbia and I spoke with [Municipal Affairs Minister] Selina Robinson earlier this week and mentioned that to her. “If we’re going to look at delaying utility bills out, if we are going to look at deferring property taxes, we need to have some ability for the cities to be compensated for that obvious loss. Because we’re in the same shape as a lot of businesses — our revenues are going to be severely impacted by this situation and we’re going to have to seriously look at our budget on the other end.”
He said businesses that remain open will not at this time be ordered to close, nor will day cares, which he said continue to provide child care for first responders on the front lines.
“I think the business community is making some very difficult decisions on their own,” he said. “I’ve seen a myriad of closures because of simply no business, right? If you don’t have customers, you don’t stay open. And, certainly, if you don’t have customers, you’re not likely to have 50 or more in your building. Those kinds of things are not really an issue at this point in this particular emergency.”
Earlier in the day, the city announced that it would no longer charge for transit or parking — though buses are anecdotally “virtually empty,” Christian said — and parking fees downtown are null and void. Bylaws officers are focused on the homeless population, primarily in the downtown area.
The city continues to provide updates online at https://letstalk.kamloops.ca/COVID.
One final message from the city’s leader, heading into the weekend:
“I simply urge the residents of Kamloops head the advice of the provincial health officer with respect to social distancing. This will help us immensely in the days to come and that’s what we’re planning for right now. That is the reason we take this step today.”
As of Friday, March 20, the following services will remain operational:
• Kamloops Fire Rescue
• Kamloops RCMP
• Kamloops Bylaw services
• Emergency social services
• Residential garbage and recycling pickup (includes commercial and multi-family)
• Landfills, recycling, and yard waste depots
• City parks, dog parks, trails, and public washrooms
• Kamloops Centre for Water Quality
• Kamloops Sewage Treatment Centre
• Building inspection services
• Building permit services
• Business licensing services
• Planning services
• Transportation and engineering services
• Social and community health
• Road maintenance, water, and sewer utilities
• Financial services