Fourth in a series
The frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic occur where the public interacts with a service and one of the biggest source of services are those provided by municipal government.
The City of Campbell River has seen its operations affected by COVID-19 as much as anything has. From public interaction protocols, closing and then re-opening facilities and more, Campbell River’s municipal employees have seen it all.
And there’s more to it than just procedures for paying your taxes or renewing a business licence. Some of the services the city provides are a venues for social interaction, a place to connect with friends and a source of health and wellness. Particularly during the pandemic.
This is particularly true of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department which, like the fitness industry in general, was one of the first and hardest to be hit by COVID. Mary Fast, the city’s Fitness Supervisor, said everybody thought, initially, that COVID would only close things down for a couple of weeks and then everything would return to normal. But then it started going longer and longer and recreation staff realized they were going to have respond.
“We thought, okay, we have to do something about this,” Fast said.
For recreation staff, the shutdowns were personally impactful. It is a field populated by gregarious and outgoing people and having their clients being told to stay home was difficult for both clients and fitness instructors.
“As a fitness department, we’re very social people, and we really, you know, care about our clients, and the people who come here, whether it’s personal training, or doing classes or anything like that, and then suddenly, we didn’t have these people here anymore,” Fast said.
From a personal perspective, Fast said, she works closely with people who need to use adaptive fitness equipment, like people in wheelchairs.
“I found that, personally, very hard to say to them, you can’t come here anymore,” Fast said.
The average fitness client can adapt to the situation more easily. They can go and buy some fitness equipment to fill their needs.
“But people who were in wheelchairs, they can’t do that. Right? And then you couldn’t visit them in their houses because, of course, that was during the lockdown,” Fast said.
Recreation staff soon learned how important the classes and facilities are to people.
“Our clients depend on us for their physical health, but also their mental health and their overall wellness. And so after, you know, the first initial shock of COVID, we started to reach out to people and ask them how they were doing. And we were just amazed how badly people were doing, right? Because coming to classes and coming to the weight room, give them a purpose.”
Recreation staff decided they had better start doing something more for people. That involved virtual programming and it involved a bit of a learning curve for recreation staff.
“We had no experience whatsoever, like that. So, a couple of our staff members, you know, really went and did all the research,” Fast said.
The staff launched live classes on Facebook and put videos on YouTube as another method of reaching out to people. That carried the staff and their clients through to about June when restrictions got lifted somewhat. Classes could then be held outdoors, which proved to be very popular. But there had been a cost, most of the permanent staff were laid off.
Later in August, classes were allowed to go back indoors. But by way of comparison, they had gone from doing 52 classes a week to maybe three or four classes a week. By the time September and October rolled around, they were starting to increase the number of classes but in the last few weeks, things have been “pretty much shut down again,” Fast said.
The schedules and the number of classes, though, don’t begin to reflect the emotional impact of the COVID-imposed cutbacks. Fast said her staff expressed those impacts to her.
“One said that coming in to teach classes certainly gave her more of an incentive to to keep herself fit and active,” Fast said
But beyond that, it also made her realize how important interacting with clients was to her own well-being. Being at home is tough on both fitness instructors and clients.
“She did really well, at home by herself, but she actually needs the people as much as they need her when they’re teaching their classes,” Fast said. “You might have 50 to 70 people in your class, and then all of a sudden, you don’t.”
And the instructors also lose the interaction amongst themselves as well. COVID also meant no training or skill upgrading. And because fitness staff work part-time for the city and other fitness facilities around town, in more normal times they would be able to make up the hours they lost from the city by picking them up from their other employers but that couldn’t happen due to the impact of COVID.
But the staff are working with the situation, adapting as needed, innovating where they can and staying as positive as possible.
“We’re a very upbeat group. So we’re very optimistic about the future,” Fast said.
Taxes still have to be paid
Another city department that has a lot of interaction with residents is the finance department. This is where you pay your taxes and so it’s not something that can be put off.
The city had to implement a program to welcome the public to City Hall in a safe and socially-distanced manner. The department had to scramble when COVID came down in March because they were two months away from tax season.
“Typically, what happens to tax season is, the City Hall just gets bombarded with people, right? Lineups,” said Mark Coulter, the city’s Senior Accountant.
With COVID, that meant social distancing measures had to be put in place – pylons every six feet, markers. But it also meant providing different options for making payments. There was a lot of advertising and promoting online banking and if people were not comfortable with that, there was a good-old fashioned dropbox outside City Hall. These are all measures designed to make sure people weren’t coming into City Hall.
Otherwise, it meant temporary barriers and sanitizing after each customer, Coulter said.
“Trying to deter them from using cash for property tax payments, just because we didn’t want to be handling cash,” Coulter said. “Because everybody was kind of unsure as to what does this virus really mean? And what is the safe thing to do? So we’ve been pushed for the first year ever to allow people to pay property taxes by credit card.”
It was a stressful period, Coulter said, not just for tax time but also for paying for other services. The Community Centre and the Sportsplex were closed and those are sites where the city sells tags for garbage, bus passes and things like that. All that traffic then went to City Hall.
“So we definitely had increased traffic for that, because we were the only place that was really open at that time,” Coulter said.
They also implemented a drive-through for property tax payments. People could just pull up and staff would take their payments while other staff took a “Walmart greeter” type of role and directed people where to go.
Then when tax time hit full on in June and July, finance department staff had to absorb that increased workload without hiring the extra staff they usually do and nixing overtime due to financial constraints.
Coulter said the public seemed to take it in stride. Tax time is often the only time people actually go to City Hall and when they do it’s often to lodge a complaint or work out a situation. So Coulter was pleasantly surprised to see how positive people were reacting to having to line up outside the building. His observation was that people were using it as an opportunity to catch up with friends they hadn’t seen in quite a while.
“They found it is a social opportunity to finally get to meet people that they haven’t seen for a couple of months,” Coulter said. “Right? It was nice to get out. It was quite an interesting dynamic when I was out there.”
Coulter said he also found people were very patient. They were obviously getting used to all of these protective measures, having experienced them in other service and retail businesses.
“I think they’re getting used to it, whether it be from other, you know, retail stores or whatever. You know, they’ll stand back and they’ll wait for us to sanitize the workstation between each customer, you know, that comes in,” Coulter said. “So that way, it’s been very refreshing.”
A development boom during a pandemic
Another city department that found things got busier not quieter during the pandemic, was the Development Services department. That’s because Campbell River was in the midst of a building boom and it wasn’t going to stop for the pandemic.
Like other departments Development Services sent staff home at first and allowed them to work from there. It was a fast turnaround to make that happen.
“It hit us really quick in terms of what that would look like,” said Andy Gaylor, the Development Planning Services manager. “There was a lot of anxiety with our staff and the development community that I am responsible for liaising with.”
Switching to work from home and adapting the technology to allow staff to do that was a challenge.
“It was pretty manic those first few weeks,” Gaylor said.
But in addition to gearing the staff up for working from home, there was also the challenge of developing procedures to handle development applications from the development community. In March and April, a number of development applications essentially stalled while the department developed procedures to get its work done under the pandemic. It needed to conduct some bylaw amendments and there are legal requirements in order to do that.
“That was one of the first major hurdles we crossed was figuring out a way to still maintain the intent and requirement of doing public consultation but allowing the files to proceed,” Gaylor said.
City Council made a number of procedural bylaw changes to allow for virtual meetings and virtual notification requirements. At the same time they looked at doing virtual application submissions and remote payments. The day-to-day process of advancing applications had to change.
There was a lot of anxiety amongst the development community, Gaylor said. Developers were concerned about how staff were going to be able to deal with applications. Developers had projects underway, crews ready to go. They were concerned about whether things would still be able to move forward in City Hall.
With a construction boom underway, the city didn’t want to see that momentum slow down.
Gaylor said he was impressed how his staff adapted to the situation and maintained their productivity levels while balancing work and family requirements during an uncertain time. Both the development community and staff have had to adjust and work out glitches as procedures were developed. It now all seems to have settled out into a working process.
“It’s had its ups and downs but people are starting to get the hang of it,” Gaylor said.
The process continues regardless of the pandemic. Gaylor said they are still seeing a lot of applications come into City Hall, there are still a ton of building permits being issued.
“I haven’t seen developments slow down at all. I think there’s a lot of positive momentum in the community,” he said. “You see that when you drive around.”
Staff began to return to the office during the summer when COVID numbers improved but they are going back to home with the numbers rising again. However, there is currently about half the staff working from home.
Another department impacted by the pandemic is Bylaw Enforcement. Their particular challenge was being given additional responsibilities for enforcing provincial health orders.
The Campbell River bylaw enforcement department under the city’s emergency operations centre developed complaint response procedures and a file management system to deal with all incoming complaints regarding provincial COVID-19 recommendations and requirements.
“It’s been a continually-evolving process as provincial requirements and recommendations developed to reflect the changing needs of community and individual safety,” Senior Bylaw Enforcement Officer Karl Read said. “This has been important to enable our bylaw enforcement officers to educate people in this environment or to appropriately refer for the follow-up of other government agencies, depending on the issue.”
Like all other city departments, bylaw enforcement had to alter its practices in performing their work and adhering to provincial recommendations and requirements of safe practice when in the office and out in the field.