Remember that frozen ice circle floating in the South Thompson River, a phenomenon of nature that led the news cycle for one peaceful moment in time in Kamloops? Well, the mayor’s annual State of the City address may have had a different tone back then. It may have had a different tone a week ago, even a day ago.
However, on Thursday, just hours before the speech — planned a month in advance — was set to take place, the COVID-19 pandemic had shut down major sporting events, cancelled conferences and resulted in the provincial health officer banning gatherings of more than 250 people in British Columbia, including Kamloops.
Bottles of personal-sized hand-sanitizer were as abundant as bottles of beer and wine at the Sandman Signature Hotel, on a night that is as much about networking for Kamloops Chamber of Commerce members as it is about hearing from the city’s top elected official.
Mayor Ken Christian told those gathered he longs for the days of the frozen ice circle.
“This may be the last gathering of this size we have in Kamloops for some time,” Christian told the group of about 130 people, four hours after Bonnie Henry publicly announced the ban on large gatherings.
The mayor’s speech did not shy away from the challenge faced by the community in light of COVID-19, with “resilience” the message he had for the business community and the city as a whole, with his address being live-streamed online to the greater masses.
Though no cases have thus far been publicized in Kamloops, “Clean Hands Ken” — as the mayor referred to himself, harkening back to his days in public health — told the crowd there will be COVID-19 cases in Kamloops and there will likely be related deaths. He said his hope is the numbers of deaths will be low, with pandemic plans in place at Royal Inland Hospital, but added it is important for businesses to have emergency plans in place.
“Have some thought in and around what that disease and what the absence of half of your workplace might be like for you,” Christian said. “That is an important reminder as we move forward in the coming days. I suspect with the announcement one hour ago that Sophie Gregoire Trudeau is positive for COVID-19, that this is something that is already circulating within our community. Be aware.”
COVID-19 has tanked the stock markets this week and Christian said the amount of money lost is “tremendous.” The trickle-down effect has yet to be fully realized.
Another challenge, Christian noted, is the issue of rights and title. Before COVID-19 began dominating the conversation and government attention, blockades had taken place across the country in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline in northwest B.C., with the protests also impacting the economy.
Christian called the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, work on which will soon begin in Kamloops, a “silver lining,” something other communities like Kelowna and Nanaimo don’t have.
Perhaps he was preaching to the choir on that issue, as those hand-sanitizer bottles handed out to chamber members donned branding from Canada’s Oil and Natural Gas Producers.
Incoming Kamloops Chamber of Commerce president Tyson Andrykew, who runs the hotel in which the event was being hosted and Sandman hotels in several other communities, said “these are really challenging times,” citing hotel cancellations and other pressures on the hospitality industry, which he said often acts as a barometer for the greater economy.
Andrykew said he is up to the challenge as he heads into his role as chamber president in a time of instability.
“This is where the chamber really has an opportunity to show its strength,” Andrykew said. “This is a time for collaboration. This is a time for us to work with our other organizations, like Tourism Kamloops, and the business improvement associations in our city to figure out ways to battle through this together.”
Looking ahead, the mayor emphasized the importance of relationships, including with Interior Health, School District 73, Tk’emlups te Secwépemc and Thompson Rivers University. Through four decades in Kamloops, Christian said, the university has undergone the single-biggest change.
He called the school an “important part” of the city’s economy, with nearly 14,000 students impacting everything from local restaurants and grocery stores to future employees. Christian said he sees opportunity in populating the campus, active transportation and research in emergency management.
“We need to embrace them as a partner in our community,” he said.
The mayor also gave a nod to the April 4 Kamloops Centre for the Arts referendum. A new video unveiled on Thursday might appeared to expand on the city’s Tournament Capital branding to emphasize a community of “athletes and artists” and asked residents to “give art a home.”
The referendum is little more than two weeks away. However, with COVID-19 taking over for the immediate future, it felt much further away on Thursday.