With eight people around the table, council appeared to have trouble maintaining social distancing around the makeshift space. Councillor Don Whitrow pulled up his mask when the meeting went into session and then down again minutes later when council moved the meeting into closed session.
As provincial restrictions relax with the increase in vaccination rates, there may be some bumps along the way as municipal councils move to return to council chambers across the Province.
The RM council met in cramped chambers quarters until they decided to move to the Zoom platform because of COVID. Council decided not to use the local hall as a meeting location to save money on rental costs, and the hall does not have internet access.
Many municipal councils have been meeting over Zoom when possible, with some choosing to move to larger local venues such as town halls and curling rinks where they can maintain social distancing.
COVID has placed unique pressures on many rural councils as they try to meet, as reliable high-speed internet outside of larger centres is not the norm and even more so when councillors try to connect to Zoom calls from home locations in the countryside.
There has been a silver lining for ratepayers when councils meet over Zoom; the public has had more access to watch how their councils conduct themselves and how they reach their decisions. And to the budget-conscious rural municipality ratepayer, there may be another not thought of benefit; clear savings in councillor submitted mileage costs and expenses. The cost savings are palpable for large RM’s who hold two regular meetings a month and multiple committee meetings.
For example, the RM of Lumsden had been meeting in the ample basement space of the community hall but in November moved their meetings to Zoom. Every month total mileage costs submitted by the council for regular and committee meetings run the RM around $300/month. Holding the meets over Zoom has saved the RM of Lumsden ratepayers over $2000 in 7 months while also making attendance to the meetings more accessible to the public.
Other municipal councils have moved between zoom and in-person meetings and plan to resume meetings in chambers, such as the Town of Strasbourg.
Since June of 2020, the Town of Strasbourg council has been meeting in the expansive basement of the local hall. They moved to Zoom temporarily after a COVID scare, holding several meetings over the platform before moving back to the hall in June. They will move back to council chambers when restrictions are completely lifted.
The RM of Dufferin council has also met several times over Zoom during the pandemic and when an employee became ill with COVID. Since meeting back in chambers, there have been a few hiccups as the Reeve often has his mask down, and speakers are allowed to remove their masks while making presentations to council. The RM has consistently allowed the public access to all of their meetings over Zoom.
We contacted the Ministry of Health for clarification around current requirements in municipal offices.
A spokesperson from the Ministry of Health said, “The guidelines state that the use of non-medical masks is MANDATORY in most indoor public places, including municipal locations offering services to the public.”
They said that masks are not required for individuals if they are alone in a closed setting where members of the public don’t normally have access.
They also said masks are not required when municipal officials are speaking during a television or other media news interview or conference, but only when they are able to maintain a three-metre distance from others.
Along with Provincial masking requirements, The Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety’s Occupational Health and Safety “Stop the Spread” information says a two-metre distance between workers in a shared workspace and break rooms.
The RM of McKillop did not respond to requests for information on mileage and expense costs to ratepayers by the time of publication. We will be following municipal councils as they navigate through re-opening and changing provincial guidelines.
Jennifer Argue, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Last Mountain Times