We’re all in this together.
That’s the message coming from New Westminster city councillors as they come to grips with how the city will handle the COVID-19 pandemic.
Councillors held a special three-and-a-half-plus-hour meeting on Monday, March 23 to talk about the city’s pandemic response, covering a range of issues including council meeting procedures, city COVID-19 working groups, an expansion of its rent bank, and the city budget.
The overriding message throughout was one of solidarity and community as councillors acknowledged that the task of getting residents and businesses safely through this pandemic will be a herculean one – and it will require everyone to do their part.
“We hear the concerns, the stress, the anxiety that’s in the community, and we’re going to do everything as a local government to help protect you,” Mayor Jonathan Cote assured residents.
But he stressed that the health and safety of the community is in everyone’s hands.
“It is so important … that everyone in the community listen to the directives of our public health officer. I want to encourage everyone to stay home as much as possible,” Cote said.
With council having voted on procedural changes to allow meetings to take place virtually rather than in council chambers, Cote noted councillors will be doing their part to stay home.
“Our next council meeting is going to be done electronically, and the mayor might be in his pyjamas doing the meeting,” he said, lightening the mood at the end of a long and often somber meeting. “At our next council meeting we are going to be at home, and we want you to stay safe and be at home as much as possible.”
Councillors heard updates on the creation of working groups to guide the city through the crisis, including two focused on the city’s internal operations (human resources and IT).
Another three working groups will deal with deal with external issues: one coordinating efforts to help at-risk and vulnerable populations; one aimed at helping seniors and people with disabilities; and one aimed at small business and the local economy. Those three groups will involve city staff along with representatives from outside agencies - non-profit organizations, faith groups, business organizations and representatives from the arts and tourism sector.
A new, sixth group was approved at the March 23 meeting to cover education and enforcement – namely, how to best get the word out to residents and businesses about the rapidly changing situation, and how best to enforce any violations of public health directives.
City councillors urged that, as much as possible, the business of all the working groups should be conducted electronically to minimize social contact.
At the same meeting, councillors also agreed to allocate $1.7 million from the city’s affordable housing reserve fund to cover emergent housing needs during the pandemic – including an extra $100,000 as an endowment to its existing rent bank, which helps tenants with emergency loans.
They also directed staff to rework the city’s draft financial plan to lower the proposed tax increase to 3.1% and turn a 1% capital levy into an emergency fund instead. (See related story here.)
Councillors also had words of praise for staff, emergency services personnel and community members who are doing their part to help in the crisis.
Coun. Patrick Johnstone took the time out to thank those who are helping to keep people socially connected, whether that’s by starting discussions on social media or delivering food to those who can’t get out.
“The community is pulling together in this unprecedented time,” he said. “Social distancing has to be replaced, as other people have said, by the idea of physical distancing. Let’s keep ourselves arm’s length, or two arms’ length away, but let’s keep ourselves connected to each other and do what we can to support everybody.”