PENHOLD – The town is struggling with the province’s unclear COVID messaging about how small towns, including Penhold, should handle the soaring pandemic, said mayor Mike Yargeau.
The mayor of Penhold, admitting he was frustrated, said there needs to be “leadership” coming from the Alberta government in the way it’s communicating with rural communities.
“The Town of Penhold wants to be part of the solution and wants to work with the province but in order to do that we need to make sure we are working together,” said Yargeau on Nov. 13. “We need clear lines of communication and everybody needs to understand what their role is. I think lately that message has been lost.”
The Penhold mayor was responding to the province’s new public health measures to respond to soaring COVID-19 positive cases across the province.
On Nov. 12, the province announced a plan of new restrictions targeting specific areas of the province, including Edmonton, Calgary, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, Fort McMurray and Red Deer.
The new measures include two-week closures for indoor sports and fitness centres in major centres, and earlier time closures for bars, lounges and pubs in areas of the province under enhanced watches.
“We are still figuring out what it means for us,” said Yargeau, noting the town is not included in the new measures that Red Deer must implement to battle the pandemic. “But we are 10 minutes away. Our arena is filled with people from all over Central Alberta. This just all come out at 3:30 p.m. yesterday (Nov. 12). We are still trying to get some guidance from the province.
“I am not a big fan of a lot of the voluntary recommendations. I think in a time like this we need clear leadership and we need to understand that the province needs to know who is in charge," added Yargeau, saying the town has sent “multiple” letters to the province and is hoping to have a meeting soon with Tracy Allard, the provincial minister of municipal affairs.
“Albertans need to know who is in charge. When we deal with these kind of halfway recommendations, I think the importance of the message is lost," he said.
As far as how town council and staff can best manage COVID at the municipal level, Yargeau said he still has not come up with an answer.
“We have a lot of safety protocols in place in our public buildings. I would like to say we are going above and beyond but we really need to work with the province and to be clear of what they expect of these communities, like Penhold, that are outside these hot spots,” said Yargeau as he was preparing to meet Innisfail-Sylvan Lake MLA Devin Dreeshen later in the day. “This will be coming up, obviously, in that meeting.”
However, town officials are already in discussions amongst themselves on taking proactive and preventative action that is within their legal jurisdiction, said Yargeau.
The mayor said the town is now considering shutting down services and facilities, like recreational ones at the Penhold Regional Multiplex.
“Yes, things like that we can do and we are thinking about it. We haven’t made any final decisions, and the same goes for our arena,” he said.
“This is a situation that changes daily too. It is definitely something that is on the table.”
Meanwhile, senior Innisfail officials are also concerned with the escalating COVID rates but like Penhold the town is not under an enhanced status and for now at least will have to make their own decisions about toughening up local COVID guidelines.
“Those enhanced and restriction areas are growing and that is a concern,” said Todd Becker, the town’s chief administrative officer, adding the “concerning” COVID situation is being monitored closed by the local Emergency Coordination Centre (ECC).
“Yes, it is concerning to the ECC, and we’re having informal conversations as well as out formal meetings, just to get ahead to what is potentially coming to this area," he said.
Becker noted the town is still under alert status and has not yet adjusted restrictions in town facilities.
He said the ECC would be meeting Nov. 16 to talk about the current COVID situation and determine whether the town should make necessary preventative local measures.