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Banff businesses forcing staff with COVID-19 to work 'unforgivable'

“I know this is hard on all of us, but you are doing such a disservice to yourself and to this community and to our economy by asking your employees come in if there is any risk that they’re positive.”
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Pedestrians walk along Banff Avenue on Tuesday (Nov. 17). EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

BANFF – Banff’s mayor has lambasted local businesses forcing their staff to work under threat of their jobs if they tested positive for COVID-19 or are in self-isolation.

Mayor Karen Sorensen said she received a disturbing email early Wednesday (Nov. 25) from an employee of a local business that stated staff were being asked to come to work, even if they were tested positive for the virus, or were waiting on results.

“I believe a majority of our businesses are doing what’s right, and I thank them all for supporting their staff,” she said during Wednesday’s special council meeting to deal with the pandemic.

“But that was really hard to read this morning, that an employer said: ‘No, I need you to come in, and if you don’t come in, you don’t have a job.’ For heaven’s sakes. Unforgivable,” she added.

“I know this is hard on all of us, but you are doing such a disservice to yourself and to this community and to our economy by asking your employees come in if there is any risk that they’re positive.”

Silvio Adamo, the Town of Banff’s director of emergency management, also had some harsh words.

“The one very serious concern that I have is reports of people who tested positive, or were identified as close contacts, not following the requirement of self-isolation,” he said.

“I cannot emphasize enough how dangerous this behaviour is, and I hope this message gets through to those individuals that they are putting peoples’ lives in danger – please do the right thing; you must self-isolate for 14 days.”

Alison Gerrits, who is part of Banff’s Emergency Coordination Centre (ECC), encouraged staff feeling pressured to show up at work – if they have the virus or are in isolation – to make a complaint online or phone the local AHS investigator.

“That public health investigator has the ability to go into that place of employment and enact various measures, including shutting them down,” Gerrits said.

Mayor Sorensen encouraged staff to do just that.

“I know as a young person that may feel hard and difficult, and you may feel the repercussions are more serious than making the complaints … but we would say please have the courage to do that,” she said.

“You are benefiting the community as a whole and yourself – and maybe if three or four in the same vicinity, then you don’t feel all alone in that.”

After the Alberta government declared a second state of public health emergency on Tuesday (Nov. 24) and implemented measures, Banff’s ECC worked to look at other potential options council may want to consider for the community.

The provincial restrictions come after weeks of rising numbers, and include a ban on any indoor social gatherings, and outdoor gatherings are limited to 10 people, effective immediately, with restricted access to some businesses starting Nov. 27.

Premier Jason Kenney said the government felt there was no other option other than these tough measures given that 40 per cent of traceable cases connect back to private, social gatherings.

“For the first time in the history of our province, we just told people they’re not allowed to have anyone over to their homes and they’re going to be fined if they do,” he said.

“We’re not trigger happy to do to that … but  if you’re holding indoor social events they are now illegal and those rules will be enforced to our greatest ability,” he added.

“If we don’t get that rate of transmission down, start bending the curve, we will have no option but for tougher measures that we do not want to impose.”

Mayor Sorensen said the provincial restrictions do not include a provincial travel ban and have not shut down any businesses, which are provincial responsibilities.

“That is what council will be discussing later today if we need to do more and how in fact we do that under our jurisdiction,” she said.

The outcome of that discussion was not available at the time the Outlook went to press.

Meanwhile, people caught violating the mandatory provincial restrictions could be fined $1,000 per ticketed offence and up to $100,000 through the court system.

The government won’t set up a so-called snitch line, but is giving municipal bylaw officers the power to enforce provincial health measures under the Public Health Act.

“We’ll make a final decision later this week, but that will likely include level 1 and level 2 peace officers, and of course, police are empowered already to enforce those orders,” Kenney said.

“It’s up to the police and peace officers to operationalize this, but I anticipate that they will able to see obvious signs of large gatherings – a lot of cars parked outside somebody’s house, for example.”

As of Tuesday afternoon (Nov. 24) – the most up-to-date statistics available at the Outlook’s deadline – Banff and Lake Louise had 152 active cases and Canmore had 52. There are five active cases in the Municipal District of Bighorn.

The provincial positivity rate sits at about 8.3 per cent.

A total of 1,115 new positive cases were identified in Alberta on Tuesday, bringing the total number of active cases province-wide to 13,349. Of those, 348 people are in hospital, including 66 in intensive care.

There were 16 additional deaths reported Tuesday over the previous 24 hours, bringing the provincial COVID-19 death toll to 492.

Based on recommendations from Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw, and with rising hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions, the government decided new restrictions are needed.

Kenney said he didn’t want to put any more pressure on the already overwhelmed health-care system.

“If you know somebody waiting for surgery, someone in your family, a friend or neighbour who’s waiting for cardiac surgery or heart surgery, this is about them … this is about those people and whether or not they will be able to get access to critical health care and to surgery in a reasonable amount of time,” he said.

“If they don’t get access in a reasonable amount of time, you’ll have a growing number of people suffering, anxious, depressed … let’s not forget there are huge downstream affects.”

In Banff and Lake Louise, more and more businesses, particularly restaurants, have been temporarily closing their doors over the past week due to positive COVID cases, or close contacts, or as a precaution given the escalating number of cases.

Parks Canada closed the Lake Louise visitor centre to in-person visits until further notice due to the growing case numbers in the area.

On Sunday (Nov. 22), the Town of Banff’s emergency coordination centre (ECC) shut down all team sports, cohorted program and high-intensity fitness programs in municipal facilities, including the Fenlands recreation centre.

The drop-in family play program at 101 Bear St. was also temporarily suspended.

Before Tuesday’s provincial announcement, Banff residents had been calling on council to take immediate action to protect the community, including declaring a state of local emergency.

Leslie Taylor, Banff’s first mayor and former town councillor, said she wanted a local state of emergency declared in the Town of Banff, noting that Alberta has been flailing in its handling of the escalating positive cases.

“A few examples might be additional enforcement of public health requirements, expanding testing capacity, setting up an isolation facility for those who need to isolate but live in places where they cannot, and possibly once again setting up information check-stops at town entry points,” she said in a letter to council.

“I believe that a state of emergency expands your powers to take such actions, and others that I'm sure you're considering. It also sends a clear message to residents and to other Albertans that we are in trouble.”

Long-term residents Bernadette and Alan McDonald voiced concerns about COVID-19 numbers sky-rocketing in the community to among the top five in the province (per capita) – with no end in sight.

“We no longer feel safe,” they wrote in a letter to council, noting they have cancelled dentist appointments, physiotherapy appointments, haircuts, and anything that takes them out of self-isolation.

The McDonalds say they understand that it’s unfair to punish businesses and individuals who are playing by the rules and doing their best to operate safely in the community –  but believe it’s critical to make an attempt to curb some of the reckless behaviour.

“Please consider this state of emergency as a first step towards a series of staged lockdowns or curfews, or some kind of authorized monitoring of people’s behaviour that results in consequences,” the couple wrote.

Adamo said he encourages all residents to do their part in preventing the spread of the virus by following all health orders.

“It’s hard to imagine two weeks ago I was giving a COVID update and I was saddened to say we had nine active cases in our community,” Adamo said at a council meeting on Monday (Nov. 23). “What two weeks can do with this pandemic is quite remarkable.”

The Town of Banff also continues to work to find isolation rooms in the community for those in shared accommodation.

“At present, our partner agency, the Y, that had rooms identified, is near or at capacity,” Adamo said.

“We are working with another commercial operator currently and Alberta Health Services to increase that inventory.”

Mayor Sorensen and Town Manager Kelly Gibson had a conversation with Banff-MLA Miranda Rosin on Sunday (Nov. 22) to ask her to advocate to the government on Banff’s behalf.

“We spoke to her specifically about advocating for us about testing and an isolation centre,” she said, noting they also asked for peace officers to get additional powers to enforce public health measures, which the government has now agreed to.

COVID controversy

Banff-Kananaskis MLA Miranda Rosin came under fire earlier in the week when she falsely claimed in a controversial newsletter that the worst of the pandemic is over as COVID-19 numbers in the Bow Valley continued to rapidly rise.

Rosin’s newsletter, titled Economic Recovery, landed in local mailboxes last week, leading to widespread calls for an apology and getting her media headlines across the country.

“With the worst of the COVID-19 health pandemic behind us, it is critical that we take a confident and optimistic step forward into our future as a province,” she wrote.

In the face of ongoing criticism, Rosin turned to Facebook on Saturday to respond.

While she didn’t offer an apology, she said her newsletter was sent to print in early fall when Alberta’s active cases were below 2,000, but was only delivered to mailboxes this week.

“There is no denying that Alberta's case count is now sharply rising, especially in communities such as Banff,” she said.

“Of course, everyone must rigorously follow public health guidelines at this critical moment.”

Former NDP MLA for the Bow Valley, Cameron Westhead, who is also currently second vice-president of the United Nurses of Alberta union, called on Rosin to apologize.

He said that the curve was already on the rise when Alberta had 2,000 active cases.

“Every public health expert said we were in for a second wave,” Westhead said.

“The fact that Rosin either wasn't aware of this or chose to ignore it is inexcusable.”

COVID growth rate alarming

Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the growth rate of COVID-19 cases is alarming.

Even with the new measures, because of the lag time between announcing and impact, she said that additional health system measures, such as cancelling urgent surgeries may be needed temporarily to ensure hospitals can cope with COVID-related illness.

“It’s clear that we have reached a precarious point in Alberta,” Hinshaw said.

“The virus is spreading faster and more widely than at any other point during this pandemic.”

Hinshaw said she is deeply concerned about the growing COVID-19 death toll, noting two individuals in their 30s recently died as a result of this virus. While both had co-morbidities, she said these were not on their own life-threatening.

She said about a quarter of all the province’s COVID-19 deaths have happened since Nov. 1.

“The daily COVID-19 death count is a tragic reminder that COVID-19 is not just a flu; it is life and death,” she said.

According to provincial statistics, the average age of people experiencing hospitalization is dropping.

Hinshaw said about one in four people who need hospital care for COVID-19, and one out of every six in ICU with COVID-19 have no pre-existing medical conditions.

But she said it is also important to remember that having a chronic medical condition, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, is very common.

“In Alberta, almost one quarter of all adults over the age of 20 have a chronic condition,” she said.

“That is almost 800,000 people. Ten per cent have two conditions, and eight per cent have three or more.”

Older adults are more likely to have medical conditions.

Hinshaw said that of those over age 50, for example, 65 per cent have one or more chronic conditions.

“When looking just at men in Alberta, more than half of men over 50, and almost 70 per cent of men over 65, have high blood pressure. That should not be a death sentence,” she said.

Hinshaw said Alberta Health Services is able to add more intensive care capacity – but creating this capacity means stopping or delaying other services.

“This is the impact we want to avoid,” she said. “Demand for COVID-19 is still high and the system is taxed.”

New restrictions in Banff and Canmore at a glance

• No indoor social gatherings are permitted in any setting, including workplaces, effective immediately;

• Outdoor social gatherings are limited to a maximum of 10 people;         

• Wedding and funeral services are limited to a maximum of 10 people, no receptions permitted;              

• No festivals or events;   

• Grades 7-12 ending in-person classes early, moving to at-home learning Nov. 30-Jan. 11 (except on Christmas break);

• Students in early childhood services and Grades K-6 will remain learning in-person until Dec. 18;

• All students will return to at-home learning after the winter break and resume in-person learning on Jan. 11, 2021;      

• Working from home should be considered, where possible;

• Places of worship at one-third normal attendance.

For a full list of the new public health emergency measures go to