Town lifts parking ban, opens washrooms, hires help for emergency order enforcement, plants flowers
The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s emergency operations control group has ordered the reopening of two public washrooms in Old Town, after concerns that people “relieving themselves” on parks and private property could create a whole new public health issue amid the ongoing pandemic.
“This is a decision that the emergency team has struggled with over the last week,” Lord Mayor Betty Disero told members of council Monday night via live stream, which for the first time included video of councillors from home.
She said the decision to open the washrooms was made to reduce stress on business owners being asked by visitors to use their washrooms and due to “the frequency of visitors using our public parks and property to relieve themselves.”
The town will follow strict guidelines from Niagara Region public health to manage the washrooms, she said.
“I spoke with the medical officer of health, explained what was going on here the weekend of May 2 and 3 … there was some concern that we jumped from one crisis into a different type of public health issue.”
She noted that despite the town’s best efforts, people are still deciding to come to Niagara-on-the-Lake, and with the nicer weather the problem is likely going to get worse.
The two washrooms opened are behind the courthouse and at Queen’s Royal Park.
Parking ban lifted
The parking ban was lifted in Old Town effective this past Monday morning.
Lord Mayor Betty Disero said the decision to lift the ban after only two weeks was made in response to the province opening up retail businesses for curbside pickup and delivery.
“In response, the town is refocusing its efforts to manage the situation, addressing traffic in parks and conflicts on sidewalks in particular,” Disero told councillors Monday.
Lifting the ban will help accommodate “additional parking required by stores,” she said.
The parking meters also are now functioning and all signs referring to free parking, which preceded the parking ban, have been removed.
Disero said the reopening does present more risk to the public.
“The opening of additional businesses, removal of the parking ban and the inevitable increase of visitor traffic resulting from warm weather will increase the potential contact in the public and corresponding risk,” she said.
The town will “rely on the continued co-operation and support of the Chamber of Commerce and business community to ensure proper physical distancing between patrons and pedestrians.”
She said she thinks the parking ban was effective while it was in place.
“The parking ban was successful, with only a small percentage of people stopping and parking illegally. While the number of people stopped were in a few hundred, if the parking ban had not been in place, there would have been a few thousand who stopped,” Disero said.
Interim CAO Sheldon Randall said parking will remain closed and blocked off at Queen’s Royal Park, Ryerson Park and Sunset Point, said Randall.
The town decided it was best to keep the rest of the lots open, he said.
“Our decision is we might as well open up all the parking so we can at least collect the revenues at this point, so we can limit some of our losses. Because the people coming to town aren’t following the rules anyways and they’re going to do whatever they can to find a parking spot and not have to pay for it.”
Town maintains gardens
The town will continue to plant bulbs in some municipal gardens, interim CAO Sheldon Randall told councillors.
The program is continuing in a few “key locations” across town, including the flower beds along Queen Street.
The decision was made after consulting with the Chamber of Commerce, he said.
“(The chamber feels) it’s key to make sure we continue with whatever we do in the key areas of the town for planting, as a key to the recovery of the town after the COVID conditions or restrictions are lifted,” Randall said.
Coun. Erwin Wiens asked if the town might bring back the hanging flower baskets, which were cancelled earlier this month.
“As we try to rebound into bring our economy back, our brand is being the prettiest town in Canada or North America, and we now see that the tourists are coming back. And we’re going to have to try to keep them coming back,” Wiens said. “Do we have any resources to make sure we keep our brand as the prettiest town?”
Randall said with things evolving daily, “it changes what our potential costs or savings could be with COVID-19.”
Staff added for gardens, bylaw enforcement, washroom management
Interim CAO Sheldon Randall said the town is bring back nine contract staff workers — two for agriculture and planting, four to assist bylaw enforcement at high-traffic parks like Simcoe, Queen’s Royal and Ryerson, and three people to help the operations department, particularly in managing the washrooms.
The estimated cost to bring back the nine staff members is $7,000 per week, plus supplies and vehicle costs.
Coun. Clare Cameron asked to clarify what the roles of the staff assisting bylaw officers would be.
Randall said the duties will be “quite different” than that of regular bylaw personnel.
“They’re there to assist bylaw (officers) and also just to keep people moving. And if they run into any issues or concerns, they’re to call bylaw or Niagara Regional Police.”
On a typically day they will be stationed at the parks, he said.
“If they see people congregating or not practising social distancing, they’re going to give them a friendly reminder of what their duties are and their responsibilities under this pandemic,” he said.
If people choose not to move along or to practise safe distancing, the worker will call a bylaw officer to follow up with enforcement, he said.
Coun. Allan Bisback asked if it was possible to get the message to Premier Doug Ford that he should tell people specifically not to travel to the Niagara area.
Disero said the town is trying to get Ford to include in his messaging to stay away from tourist destinations as well as cottage country.
“What he’s saying is do not go to cottage country or rural areas. He’s assuming that everyone thinks of all of Niagara region as a rural area. Although we’re not. We’re trying to get him to change that … and we’ll continue to try and get that message to him.”
The town’s message remains the same: stay home, visit later.
Emergency group expands
Four “leaders of the community” have been asked to assist the town's emergency control group, which is overseeing the pandemic emergency, Lord Mayor Betty Disero told council Monday.
The new additions are NOTL Chamber of Commerce chair Paul McIntrye, Shaw Festival executive director Tim Jennings, Winery and Grower Alliance of Ontario chair Del Rollo and Virgil Business Association president Richard Wall.
Disero said they will help make sure the messaging the town is sending out is “relevant and consistent.”
“This high-level group will ensure the emergency control group stays strong and helpful in our messaging throughout our recovery period. It is a small, nimble, rapid response group with a large collective outreach,” she said.
Coun. Stuart McCormack asked how much they would actually participate in decision-making.
Disero said it’s “not a formal advisory committee to council.”
“It’s just if I need advice,” she said.
Coun. Gary Burroughs wondered if council could be more involved in decisions made by the emergency control group.
Interim CAO Sheldon Randall said the challenge is that the province is making changes daily. “And we’re struggling to keep up with the province,” he said.
“I think for us right now the challenge would be timing on how we engage council to having a discussion on (decisions),” he said.
Burroughs, who noted he wasn’t aware of the opening of washrooms, said he’d at least like to be notified of decisions.
“I think it would make sense if council that were elected to represent the town were at least informed in a timely basis,” he said.
Coun. John Wiens asked how long the emergency control group would be in place.
Disero said that is not known. “I really am concerned about lifting it too early.”
With parking and washrooms opening, she said it causes a potential risk that’s uncertain, she said.
“There’s a two-week possible turnaround that we might or might not see an escalation of cases in NOTL. I’m not prepared to lift that until I know for a fact we’re on safe ground.”
Staff ‘facing a lot of stress’
During the meeting Monday, Coun. Allan Bisback asked about how town staff is handling the pandemic changes and how morale is.
Interim CAO Sheldon Randall noted some employees are struggling.
“They do still somewhat feel threatened by the discussion of councillors about reduction of staff, layoffs and things like that. I think for the most part we’re getting over that, but that has caused a lot of stress for our staff. Especially the ones who are here on contract, as you can imagine. But again, everybody’s busy and I think they’re confident that there is no more capacity.”
Randall said staff members working on emergency preparation are spending all day on it, including evenings and weekends.