WESTLOCK - The Town of Westlock will partially participate in the province’s recently-unveiled Restrictions Exemption Program (REP), meaning that starting tomorrow, Sept. 21, any adult entering the Rotary Spirit Centre and Westlock Aquatic Centre (closed until Oct. 12 for maintenance), to participate in sport, fitness, recreation and performance activities, or wanting to ride the Community Assistance Bus, will need proof of at least one dose of immunization against COVID-19, a negative PCR or rapid test no older than 72 hours, or documentation of a medical exemption.
Meanwhile, all youth under the age of 18 will not be required to show proof of vaccination at either facility — athletes will have to screen for symptoms, maintain two-metres distancing and wear a mask, except while engaged in physical activity.
Spectators of all ages will also not be forced to show proof of vaccination at either facility, as the town will follow Alberta Health Services’ business capacity and operating restrictions of one-third of fire code capacity — spectators must be of a single household, or two close contacts if living alone, be masked, and maintain two-metres of physical distancing.
On Friday the town had stated that everyone entering their rec facilities would need to show proof of vaccination, but late Monday afternoon they announced that they had received further clarification from AHS to allow youth and spectators to enter without showing proof of vaccination — the story that appears in this week’s print edition is based on the town’s Sept. 17 news release.
“The province put out guideline information over the weekend and it provided a lot more information than what they had initially given to us,” said CAO Simone Wiley late Monday afternoon.
As for adult users who compete on teams in leagues, the organizers of those leagues will have to make sure that everyone who is participating has been vaccinated, said Wiley. The program does not apply to employees, contractors, repair or delivery workers, volunteers or inspectors entering the space for work purposes, as well as children under 12.
Meanwhile, standalone buildings like the town office, public works building and Westlock Fire Hall, as well as the Westlock & District Family and Community Support Services office and the Westlock Municipal Library, which are in the Heritage Building, will not participate in the program, a decision that will limit capacity to one-third fire code capacity, while multiple patrons must be with household members only, or two close contacts if they live alone.
Indoor masking and social distancing will still be required at all town-run facilities.
The new rules for local facilities, which come on the heels of the Sept. 15 provincial state of public health emergency declaration that included the unveiling of REP, were announced Sept. 17 following a COVID recovery taskforce meeting that morning. In the days since the City of Edmonton has announced it will also be implementing REP for its rec facilities, while the Town of Barrhead has opted against participating in the program.
Wiley said there was robust discussion around implementing REP, but ultimately the taskforce, which includes a handful of councillors and town staff, felt it was the correct decision in an effort to keep the facilities operating at full capacity. Proof of a single dose for adult rec users will only be accepted at the facilities until Oct. 25, then proof of full vaccination will be required.
“I think it’s safe to say those facilities of the town see a much greater volume of people. Our message has always been that we’re following the provincial recommendations and guidelines. And from what we can see from what the province has put out, they're really separating vaccinated from unvaccinated people in terms of business as usual,” said Wiley on Friday following the town’s first announcement of implementation of REP. “So when we looked at those facilities and wanted to be able to continue providing the services that people expect to receive there, we wanted to continue doing that and the only way to do that was through the program.”
If the town wouldn’t have implemented REP, adult indoor group classes and activities would have been cancelled, while indoor competitions would have been paused except where vaccine exemptions had been granted. Indoor one-on-one training and solo activities would have continued, but with three-metre physical distancing in place.
“It’s been the same thing all along. We’re working hard to safeguard the health and safety of our citizens, but at the same time to try and provide as many of the services that people rely on and require,” said mayor Ralph Leriger Friday afternoon. “It’s been a long haul for everybody and the youth of the community as well need activities and opportunities. We have to provide as much as we can, as safely as we can.”
Staffing was also a concern for the town, as not implementing the program could have led to another round of layoffs and reduced hours, said the CAO.
“That was 100 per cent a consideration,’ said Wiley on Friday afternoon. “For example, look at adult fitness. If we would have not implemented the program we would have not been able to allow any adult group fitness in the facility which limits the amount of users, which then trickles down. Are there the same amount of staff, are we reducing hours? All those conversations would have had to have happened all over again if we had not implemented the program.”
No REP at town office, other facilities
Wiley said they choose not to implement REP at the other facilities for a variety of reasons, ranging from less walk-in traffic, to the fact that the province says it cannot be implemented in “businesses or entities that need to be accessed for daily living.”
“I’ll use the town office for example. We don’t have a large volume of people that come in at any one time. The staff at the facility are generally behind the counter and barriers and people don’t stay for a long time,” said Wiley. “And it could potentially be argued that the town office needs to be accessed for daily living to pay their bills. Regardless of that, we felt that the risk was substantially lower at the town office.”
Hours at the town office will remain the same, although the majority of the 15 staff will now be working from home. Staff will rotate through the office, said Wiley, while if someone needs to see a staffer, an appointment can be set up.
At the Heritage Building library director Lisa Old said they’ll implement the capacity, masking and distancing restrictions as libraries cannot participate in REP. FCSS will also not participate in REP.
“Really FCSS right now is seeing a lot of vulnerable people having trouble accessing supports elsewhere — there are a lot of provincial agencies that aren’t open to the public right now. So our discussion was that we want FCSS to remain open to help the community and we don’t want to turn people away from accessing those supports if they aren’t vaccinated,” said Wiley.
“Both of the entities in that building (Heritage) provide services to people who really need them and you wouldn’t want to turn them away.”
Meanwhile, town council meetings, which are also held in the Heritage Building, are going back to online only for the public — select senior admin and council will continue to meet in person.
The next town council meeting is Sept. 27, while there is one slated for October before the municipal election.
Village of Clyde
Meanwhile the Village of Clyde is changing some operations to adapt to the new restrictions.
While proof of vaccination will not be required to enter the village office, they are limiting the number of people who can enter the building to a maximum of three. Office staff will alternate from working in the office, to working from home to make sure someone is always on site.
Outdoor village staff will continue to operate in-person and admin support will be available four days a week while following all COVID-19 protocols laid out by Alberta Health Services.
“We’re consistent with the rules put out by Alberta Health Services,” said village CAO Ron Cust, noting that all village staff are willingly vaccinated.
He says that adapting to the new restrictions has gone smoothly for village staff thanks to the prior model they put in place during the restrictions earlier in the year.
“It’s efficient, we know it works. It meets the requirements of protecting the staff and preventing the passing on of the virus to unvaccinated individuals,” he said.
• With files from Spencer Kemp-Boulet.