Latest change from District 5 on COVID-19 as of April 15.
I have generally kept my COVID newsletters focused on HRM operations. I wanted to highlight the Provincial update from yesterday though as it was a pretty important one in terms of estimating where we are and where we’re potentially heading. The news is encouraging. The Province’s COVID-19 modelling indicates that physical distancing and shutting down society is working. Our daily cases are still going up (our curve isn’t flat yet), but the number of cases identified is almost half what it would otherwise be in an uncontrolled spread scenario.
Projecting the modelling out indicates that if we maintain our present trajectory and do what Public Health is telling us to, Nova Scotia’s curve will flatten out. Here’s projections for the controlled versus uncontrolled scenarios. Please keep in mind the numbers are best estimates, not absolutes.
We’re on track to flatten the curve. What’s really important is we have to keep up with physical distancing for at least several more weeks. Signs of success is not an invitation to get complacent. If we relax and end up in a more rapid spread scenario, our healthcare system will struggle to keep up with the flood of patients requiring high-level care. This is what Premier McNeil said in the news conference keeps him up at night.
So, the news is good, what we’re all doing is working, and the healthcare system has the capacity to cope with where the Province is projecting we’ll end up, but we’re going to have to keep at it. If we ease up, people die. It’s a stark choice, but that’s the reality. We all have a role to play in ensuring that COVID-19’s spread is minimized and if we stick with it, we could see the potential for easing of restrictions (easing not eliminating) in the next few months.
You can watch the Province’s full update online here.
Transit operations have been significantly impacted by COVID-19. The Province has declared transit an essential service because it gets essential workers to their jobs, and is the only lifeline for many to get out and collect supplies. The challenge is how to keep the buses on the road, while making it as safe as possible.
To try and protect staff and passengers, HRM has already abandoned fare collection, instituted rear door boarding, taped off the first few seats on the bus, and limited the number of passengers. HRM has also decreased service because the municipality doesn’t have the staff available to keep up regular operations. Luckily service reductions haven’t been a big issue so far because ridership has also dramatically declined. This is the one and only time where big declines in transit ridership is a good thing!
Starting this week, HRM has further changed the way transit operates by taping off every second seat to create more separation between passengers. Ferry capacity will be reduced as well to 25 passengers per trip. Blocking off every second seat will further reduce transit capacity so again, the free fares aren’t an invitation to go joyriding. We all need to stick close to home. Transit should be for essential travel only.
It has been a tough week for HRM as the municipality has been forced to layoff or not rehire 1,480 seasonal, temporary, and casual employees. HRM has a staff of over 5,000 so 1,480 is not insignificant. The layoffs are limited to employees whose work largely doesn’t exist right now due to closed facilities or disrupted programs. COVID-19’s impacts haven’t been equally spread inside HRM with some staff transitioning to new roles and others working from home. HRM has also implemented a hiring freeze, which will hopefully minimize or eliminate the need for future layoffs by allowing staff to be more easily redeployed internally.
Issuing layoffs isn’t something that HRM has opted to do lightly. HRM has continued to employ staff who have not been able to work, and since municipal governments aren’t eligible for the federal 75% payroll subsidy, the cost has been something we’ve had to carry alone.
Unfortunately, HRM and Canada’s other municipalities just don’t have the money to continue indefinitely. HRM’s lost revenue from transit fares, parks and rec programming, and parking revenue over the next few months is estimated at $35 million. That’s a big hole and if COVID-19 restrictions continue for longer and affect September operations, that number will further worsen. HRM is also facing long-term risk around taxes as the impact on property valuations and deed transfer (probably a downturn in sales this year) is unknown, but whatever happens, it isn’t likely to be good news. Savings from layoffs total about $15 million so the revenue gap is only half filled and Council will be revisiting the 2020 budget in May.
HRM has done the compassionate thing in keeping staff on as long as we could to get them to the point where programs from other orders of government are available. Today’s announced changes to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) should be especially helpful in allowing more people to qualify (threshold to qualify is now $1,000 rather than $0 income). I’m sorry that layoffs had to happen and hope that we’ll be able to recall people in the future.
There are a lot of people out there who have been layed off or have had their business shuttered by COVID-19. The closures are necessary to save lives, but the economic damage is considerable. All orders of government have a role to play here in softening that blow. The nature of the federal and provincial programs is particularly important because they’re the ones with the deep pockets that will make the biggest difference in what sort of society emerges on the other side of this disaster. Municipalities still have a role to play, but their financial capacity is much more limited and they aren’t legally able to run deficits. This includes HRM.
Yesterday, Council approved moving the due date for this year’s tax bill from April 31, to June 1. HRM has also reduced the interest rate on overdue accounts from 15% to 10%, and eliminated insufficient fund fees
This is very much an interim step. Moving the due date for taxes gives HRM time to figure out what a more comprehensive response will look like. Discussions are well underway between HRM, the Province, and the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities (NSFM) on a Province-wide program. NSFM has proposed allowing deferrals for bills due from now to October 31, and allowing those deferred taxes to be paid back over 24 months. To make that possible, NSFM has requested the Province bankroll the plan by extending credit to municipalities. I’m hopeful that a Province-wide approach will emerge to help those most in need.
I wanted to make a brief note about the interest rate on overdue accounts. We had some good discussion at Council on whether that should be further reduced. Staff didn’t recommend going below 10% because HRM isn’t meant to be a bank. If the interest rate on overdue amounts is too low, then commercial landlords and some residents might opt to not pay their tax bill and treat it as a low-interest loan. The incentive to pay taxes still needs to be there. It’s a delicate balance. Payment plans for those in need rather than across the board interest relief is the better policy since it controls for unintended consequences that could further stress HRM’s already stressed finances.
No news on Parks. They’re still all closed as a result of the Provincial State of Emergency. There was some confusion last week around the status of school grounds. HRM manages recreational spaces on school grounds such as playgrounds and fields and they’re considered park spaces and are closed. HRCE has confirmed that what’s left in their jurisdiction is also closed. No one should be on school grounds. As a reminder, the trails that are open for local use (if you’re driving to get there you’ve gone too far) in District 5 are:
- Harbour Trail from Alderney to Woodside Ferry Terminal, excluding Ferry Terminal Park where the Peace Pavilion and playground are.
- Dartmouth Multi-Use Trail/Banook Greenway along Prince Albert Road and then from Grahams Grove around to Brookdale Crescent. Birch Cove Park, Grahams Grove Park, and Findlay Park (the lock and playground) are closed as they’re more park spaces than trails. Basically, you can walk halfway around the lake. Grahams Grove is taped off, but you can proceed between the highway sign and guardrail to access the trail.
- Oathill Lake’s loop is open.
Everything else is closed.
My colleagues and I have been getting a lot of questions about why HRM isn’t expanding space for pedestrians and cyclists to better allow for social distancing. We’ve been having some discussions internally about this, and there are some significant difficulties. It’s still under discussion, but I’m sorry to say, I doubt we’ll see any sort of COVID-19 street closures here in HRM.
To understand why, it’s important to look at what has actually been done in the two most cited Canadian examples: Calgary and Winnipeg.
In Calgary, the city closed several kilometers of street, but the streets they closed were all limited-access, parkway type, multi-lane streets that connect to or border parkland (mainly roads that run along either the Bow or Elbow Rivers). They were easy streets to control and close and next to open parks. We don’t have many streets like this (Alderney Drive is the only real comparable I can think of)
Winnipeg’s closures were more complicated, but the City also wasn’t inventing something new. Winnipeg was planning to run an Open Streets program on the streets they closed every weekend this summer. They took an already studied, planned, and ready to go program and sped up implementation.
So in Calgary and Winnipeg, the closures were either easy to do, or already planned. We don’t have either of those things here. Our streets are nothing like Calgary’s (generally a very good thing), and we don’t have an existing program. HRM would have to plan out an open streets program from scratch at a time when municipal resources are extremely stretched by the current crisis.
The other big barrier here is the Province’s decision to close all municipal Parks in Nova Scotia. Elsewhere in Canada, playgrounds and fields are closed, but parks are generally open for passive use. From Vancouver to Moncton, you can still go for a walk as long as physical distances are maintained. That’s not the case here where our health authorities have judged that stopping the spread of COVID-19 is the more pressing objective. They don’t have an easy job and getting it wrong could have deadly consequences. I don’t envy their choices.
With that in mind, it would be really going against the spirit of the Provincial order if HRM turned around and organized a COVID street party on, say, Robie Street next to a closed Common. It would be HRM looking for loopholes! Our instructions are to stay the blazes home and exercise in our neighbourhoods. Open street events are popular and there is a real risk that they could become a gathering, which is the opposite of what we all need to do right now.
Maybe I’ll end up surprised, but based on the conversations so far, I don’t expect we’ll see any street closures in HRM, at least not during this first phase of whatever living with COVID-19 looks like. Not the news that everyone wanted, but it’s where we are, and I think people deserve an explanation.
Touch Tank Online:
This has been a heavy-update. I wanted to conclude on a lighter note. I know, from personal experience, that it’s challenging time right now for many families with young kids at home. It can be hard to keep them occupied. If your family has been fans of the Touch Tank Hut at Alderney, the Back to the Sea Society is taking their educational efforts virtual with Shell and Tell. Each week they’ll release a kid-focussed video on some of the natural wonders from our shores. You can view the first one on Moon Snails on their Youtube channel here or at the link below. Who knew the Moon Snail was a carnivore and its tongue is its weapon of choice? A little bit of our Dartmouth waterfront experience going virtual.