UPDATED 3:30 May 1 to reflect Parks announcement
Before sharing my COVID update I want to take a moment to speak to the awful year we’re having. 2020 is turning into one of the darkest in our Province’s history. COVID-19, Portapique, and now the helicopter crash off Greece. This is a lot. My heart goes out to all the families, and friends who are grieving. We’re with you. We support you. We share in the sorrow.
It’s okay to not be okay at times like this. Nova Scotia is going through a lot. For information on mental health support, the Province has collected everything in one place (it was gathered up for COVID-19, but it applies generally). You can view the Provincial page here. If you, or someone you know is in need of immediate support, please contact the Mental Health Crisis Line at 1-888-429-8167.
HRM has announced additional changes to transit’s schedule. Starting on Monday, May 4th, both Alderney and Woodside will run only during the weekday morning and afternoon rush hours. There will be no weekend service. Here’s the new timetable.
The change in ferry service is happening because of almost non-existent ridership. While Transit ridership is down by over 70%, ferry ridership has declined much more significantly, dropping by 94%. The steeper decline for the ferry routes makes sense when you consider the bars and restaurants in Downtown Halifax are closed, and many, if not most, office workers are working from home. There is almost no one using the ferry right now outside of rush hour.
I fought hard over the last three years to secure the all-day 15 minute ferry service and to hold onto the ridership gains that came with the Big Lift. It’s disappointing to now have to reduce the service, but HRM is facing significant financial pressures, and it just doesn’t make sense to send empty boats back and forth when there are several bus routes that make the same trip. The bus isn’t as good for social distancing as the ferry, but the hours that the ferry won’t be available are also the hours that the buses are pretty much empty too so there shouldn’t be much of an impact. Hopefully we’ll be back to full service later in 2020 as we get past the immediate COVID crisis and start to figure out what living and working with COVID means.
Besides changes to the ferry, HRM is also making further adjustments to the bus system. Very few routes will be operating on a regular schedule. Just the 63, 64, 84, 85, 136, 185, 401, 415, and 433. Most buses will be operating on a Saturday schedule during the week. Some routes will, however, be suspended entirely. The suspended routes are generally express buses that run from suburban areas to Downtown Halifax and the Woodside Ferry Terminal.
Dartmouth North Assessment Location:
Public Health has established a COVID-19 Assessment Centre in Dartmouth North. The Centre is located in the Highfield Park Community Centre and is open seven days a week from 9:00 am – 7:30 pm. Residents experiencing symptoms can get tested at the Centre. You can book an appointment by calling 811 or you can simply drop by. Check out the facebook video on the Assessment Centre below with Dartmouth North MLA, Sue LeBlanc, and District 6 Councillor, Tony Mancini.
You may recall that HRM almost passed the 2020 budget back at the beginning of March. It was approved in principle with all the ins and outs from our options list, but the final ratification at Council didn’t happen before COVID upended everything. The draft that never was is a tough one to let go of because it kept the tax bill low, included some great investments in programming and capital, and didn’t require HRM to take on any new debt. In politics, you usually have to choose some combination of those things, not all three! We really couldn’t have asked for better and it, sadly, turned out to be too good to be true.
COVID has punched a giant hole in HRM’s revenue assumptions. The municipality isn’t collecting transit fares or parking revenue, there are losses in terms of deferring the payment date for taxes, and recreation programming has basically stopped. The municipality is losing several million a month and no one can say for certain how long that will last or how quick the COVID recovery will be.
We also don’t know what aid might be available from the federal and provincial governments. The Province announced a loan program for municipalities this week, which allows borrowing to replace deferred taxes over a three year period. Municipal leaders are right to characterize the Provincial loan program as a good start, not a solution. Low interest loans are nice, but they still have to be paid back, with interest, and relatively quickly. Consider that the federal and provincial governments will be paying for their costs of COVID-19 for generations, but municipalities are suppose to be all balanced out again in three years! Municipalities have much less fiscal capacity than the federal and provincial governments, are pretty much dependent on a single revenue source (property taxes), and have had to keep essential services, like transit, running during this crisis. Squaring that circle without aid is going to be very hard.
Without additional assistance, HRM’s stark choices will be some combination of raising taxes, cutting spending, or depleting our reserves. Raising taxes right now is pretty much a non-starter considering that a lot of people have lost their jobs, and business have closed, which leaves some combination of cuts and drawing on the reserves. HRM is fortunate in that we have healthy reserves, but it’s not an unlimited source of money. Using reserves also comes with future tax and program implications since once the money is spent, it’s gone. The situation isn’t dire because HRM was in good shape going into this, but it’s not going to be easy.
Council is scheduled to start virtual budget discussions with department presentations on May 12.
Parks and Trails (UPDATED):
What a difference a few hours makes sometimes! No sooner had I sent my newsletter then word started to circulate that the Province was about to announce the loosening of restrictions around outdoor spaces.
The Province has just confirmed that the State of Emergency’s provisions that closed all provincial and municipal parks is being lifted. The State of Emergency remains in effect including the requirement to not gather and to follow physical distancing, but the parks are mostly reopening. Playgrounds are the big exception and will remain closed because they have high-touch surfaces, and it’s hard to get kids to consistently observe physical distancing. So no playgrounds. Sports fields are reopening, but that’s not an invitation to organize a neighbourhood pick-up game since that would be a gathering. Physical distancing is still required in all parks and gatherings are still limited, but we’re free to go for a walk again. Beaches remain closed.
The Province is asking that people, again, avoid travelling to go to parks. If you do have to drive to go to a park and arrive to find the parking lot full, that’s the signal to turnaround and go elsewhere. The Province will be monitoring and further loosening of restrictions will depend on how reasonable people are in following direction and on what, if any, impact there is on COVID cases over the next few weeks.
Local Life in the Time of COVID:
COVID-19 has disrupted pretty much everything, but there are a lot of creative people in Dartmouth who are adapting as best as we can to the challenge. Here’s a few:
Alderney Market has gone online. The market is open for online orders . Orders are picked up at the market on Saturdays. For details on how to keep your favourite market goodies coming, check out Alderney’s page here
Still with Alderney, the Craig Gallery is taking art exhibits online. Check out the Craig section of Alderney’s website for art and artist talks here.
The Downtown Dartmouth Business Commission has also pivoted. You can find a listing of all the local businesses in Downtown Dartmouth that are open for online orders and takeout on the DDBC website here (there are a lot of them!).
Downtown Dartmouth is also launching a video channel, Downtown Dartmouth Television Network. DDTV will be a facebook live event featuring various local businesses (you don’t need to have a facebook account to view the video). You can view the first episode featuring Trina from Room152 on fashion and adding colour to your wardrobe below
Restaurants have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19. It’s no easy thing to switch from being a dine-in to a dine-out restaurant, but many have had to over the last few weeks. Halifax Retales has put together a big spreadsheet documenting all the changes. You can check to see if your favourite local haunt is on the list here.
Also with food, a number of local food providers have gone online and are offering local delivery. From produce, to bread, to beer, check out this handy collection compiled by my neighbour Rebekkah of local food delivery options here.
With all the restrictions on gatherings and the closure of public space, Epic‘s Canada Day marathons this year are off. No runners circling Banook together. Epic is instead encouraging people to run their own marathons on Canada Day where and if they’re able (preferably wearing red and white) and to share pictures. They’re suggesting a $10 donation, 100% of which will go to charity. Details here.