SURVIVOR STORY: Hinton’s first confirmed COVID-19 patient

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

‘Stay vigilant, not scared,’ says local who recovered from COVID-19

Tom found himself standing in a crowded Florida bar on a Monday night wondering why it was so busy.

His friends quickly informed him it was the beginning of spring break in the U.S. and Tom’s mind immediately went back to the news that just came out about the seriousness of COVID-19.

All it would take was one person in the crowd to have it and pass it on, he thought.

“Spring break was in full swing, I was like ‘okay, this is a recipe for disaster,’” Tom said.

Tom, who was in Florida to visit friends and not for spring break, knew then that the chances of the virus spreading to him were fairly high and he now believes that is exactly where he became infected with COVID-19.

The following day, on March 10, Tom flew back to Canada. He already had a phlegmy cough and a cold while travelling, but he decided to take his temperature regularly before he was set to go back to work that same week.

While the 14-day isolation period didn’t become mandatory until March 12, Tom decided to self-isolate at a friend’s house anyway in order to avoid his own immuno-compromised family members.

The first signs of slight symptoms were tricky to differentiate between what might be COVID-19 and what could just be the flu that was going around at the time. It wasn’t until March 12, two days after his return, that he noticed his temperature going up slightly.

His boss told him to stay home after he explained that he had a very mild fever. Then Tom called 811 and he was told he qualified for a COVID-19 test; someone would call him within two to three days to get tested.

On March 15, five days after his return, the local clinic phoned him back and directed him to drive to the Hinton Healthcare Centre. A nurse swabbed him through his car window in the parking lot.

“The nose swab was a pretty intense feeling, it was a mixture of wanting to sneeze, very ticklish, but almost on the verge of being painful,” Tom said.

He asked for one face mask and was told it would take three to five days to get his results back. Since Tom’s experience was so early on, testing timelines have changed drastically. He returned to the same friend’s house where he had been staying and continued isolating.

Online streaming, reading, journaling, and games kept him occupied during isolation.

“I don’t really get bored– I always find stuff to do even if I’m just locked up in my room,” he said.

With some medical training and an interest in learning about COVID-19, he used some of his time to read up on studies of the virus.

“I like learning about that stuff and I did self-educate and even viruses in general are pretty interesting things,” he said.

Tom tried not to stress about the situation and focused on the things he could do to prevent the spread, especially for the family whose house he was living in.

Even though he used a spare bedroom, the bathroom was shared and he had to make sure to be very cautious. He walked through the house with a mask covering his face and avoided coughing along the way from his bedroom to the bathroom. Whenever he touched anything, he immediately wiped it down with a disinfectant wipe he carried around. Tom did everything in his power to make sure nobody else would get sick while he waited for his results to come back.

His cough eventually turned into a dry cough, but he never felt weak and he didn’t have any difficulty breathing or have chest pains like medical professionals had suggested were the regular symptoms.

Even the fever was intermittent, it would come and go and it was very mild, he said.

“My symptoms were so mild that if this COVID thing wasn’t going around I would have probably still gone to work. Something told me no, just stay home and don’t go anywhere. It could’ve been really, really bad if I went out,” he said.

It wasn’t until he spoke to his friends in Florida who had all started showing severe symptoms, that he was convinced he had contracted the virus. Each of them mentioned they lost their sense of smell and taste, which Tom finally realized had also happened to him.

Food hadn’t tasted quite the same since his return, but he previously blamed it on the quality of the canned food he was eating in self-isolation.

“When my friends in the US told me they all lost their sense of smell and taste, for me that was what really set it apart from the flu symptoms. Everybody had a cough, everybody had a cold, everybody had those symptoms, but to me that was what really told me that I had it. I was 90 per cent sure at this point,” he said.

Chocolate didn’t taste like anything, even though his nose wasn’t clogged and he could still breath, he noted.

About eight of his friends in Florida were sick with severe COVID-19 symptoms and had difficulty breathing but it was almost impossible for them to get tested.

His friends received tests for all other possible viruses or diseases, and only after those results came back negative they were given a COVID-19 test, Tom claimed.

“People are going around not knowing they have it,” he said.

While Tom waited for his own results, the friend he had been living with also got tested for COVID-19.

Six days after Tom’s test he called Alberta Health Services (AHS) to ask about his results. On March 22, twelve days after his return to Canada, he received news that he tested positive for COVID-19, while the friend he was living with tested negative.

AHS explained the process of what would happen next, including taking all his information and documenting every place he had been for contact tracing.

They called every person he was in contact with and took down his airline information and seat number in order to inform anyone on that flight. Tom said the process wasn’t so bad since he was able to avoid going anywhere after returning to Canada.

“You never know who you’re going to infect, I was very happy and lucky that I was able to avoid getting people infected,” he said about his experience.

Hinton’s first case of COVID-19 was officially announced on March 23, and comments from worried, concerned, and scared Hinton residents soon followed online.

Most comments voiced concerns about where the person had been and who they had been in contact with.

“I just wanted to tell people that everything was okay, everything is under control. I didn’t go anywhere,” Tom said.

He thought about posting to let everyone know that there are things everyone can do to mitigate and control the spread just by social distancing, and cleaning and wiping everything just as he did as a sick person. But he decided to hold off after reading some negative and angry comments.

“You don’t know what they’ll do or how far they’ll go. I didn’t want to go to a grocery store afterwards and have someone throw me out because they didn’t understand,” Tom said.

Those concerns are why The Hinton Voice respected his wish to remain anonymous, and change his name to Tom for the purposes of this story.

Some comments were written by people who were upset that the Town of Hinton wasn’t sharing anything about the first case, but the truth was that the municipality didn’t have any more information about the first case than the public did, Tom explained.

“This is handled on a provincial scale, and they are doing contact tracing, they are phoning people up who were in contact [with me],” Tom said.

Tom added he is proud of Hinton, seeing as the three confirmed cases have recovered and there have been no other confirmed cases. The family he had been staying with was directed to quarantine for 14 days after their last contact with Tom, so Tom quickly began his search for a place where he could isolate away from them. 

He had stayed with his friend’s family for a week and a half at that point, and none of them have shown any symptoms of COVID-19 to date. A friend in Edmonton offered up a place where nobody was staying at the time so Tom could isolate.

“Once you test positive, AHS calls you on a daily basis to check up on you and see if you’re OK and ask what your symptoms are. By the fifth day they said ‘you’re good to go, you’ve been symptom free,’” Tom said.

When he received his results, five days prior, he was already almost symptom-free.

“They say that about 10 days after onset of symptoms, a person, if their symptoms aren’t there anymore or if their symptoms are already going away, that they’re not contagious anymore,” explained Tom.

He added that while a person can still test positive after symptoms have gone away, tests have shown that the virus isn’t contagious any longer. As long as a person isn’t still heavily symptomatic, AHS told Tom that it was OK.

He returned home to his family but he cautiously watched his immuno-compromised family members for any signs, even though he was assured he was no longer contagious. His family has remained healthy since he moved back home in late March.

“On the plus side, right now I’m immune, for how long we don’t know yet, we just have to wait and see how long that lasts for tests to come out and find out,” he said

AHS contacted Tom again in late April to ask if he would donate his blood to a research team that’s testing antibody kits for the province.

“I agreed and I gave my blood to the clinic here,” Tom said.

Tom praised the municipal and provincial governments for their work and how they are communicating updates.

He said this pandemic is new for everyone, and the government has made changes on a daily basis. While testing was slow at the beginning, the capacity to test people since then has grown immensely. 

“People for the most part are listening. Some are more scared than others. They don’t have to be scared. Stay vigilant, not scared,” Tom said.

Alberta Health Services Photo
A health care professional conducts a swab test on a patient at a drive-thru station in southern Alberta.

New COVID tests prove more effective, quicker

The way people are being tested for COVID-19 in Hinton changed nearly one month ago from the standard practice nose swab to now collecting a throat sample.

In mid-April Alberta Precision Laboratories (APL) provided updated recommendations for COVID-19 specimen collection and clarified instructions for the use of various types of swabs.

A nose swab can either be a deep nasal swab or deeper nasopharyngeal (NP) swab.

To manage swab inventory, increase test volumes, and reduce variability in the quality of the samples coming into the lab on the deep nasal swabs, swabbing the NP or the throat has become recommended standard, rather than the nose.

The lab confirmed that a throat sample collected on the appropriate swabs is effective at detecting the virus, stated Kerry Williamson from Alberta Health Services (AHS).

The time from when a positive result is determined in the lab, to the time that patient is notified has become a much faster process than it was back in March when testing was done on the first person confirmed with COVID-19 in Hinton.

Early testing took as long as seven days to get results. Currently it takes less than 24 hours for a positive patient to be contacted with the result, Williamson said.

People coming in for a test are simply instructed to drive to one of the testing sites where they are swabbed by a public health nurse through their car window. Once they’ve been swabbed, they then drive home and self-isolate until they get their results back and receive further instruction from AHS.

Williamson explained that these sites are more convenient for those being tested as there is no need to enter a clinic, and there is no need for patients to don personal protective equipment.

The drive-through system eliminates time spent in a waiting room, reducing risk of public transmission, and increases capacity for testing.

Hinton Golf Club opening sooner than expected on May 9

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

Alberta’s relaunch strategy included the reopening of golf courses sooner than the Hinton Golf Club expected, but on May 9 the club is welcoming back local golfers.

Staff were initially preparing for a June 1 start date, but managed to get the course prepped to open at least nine holes.

The club was set to present their budget during the May 5 regular council meeting, which was pushed back due to changes in their budget as they are now opening the course sooner than expected.

“We’re really trying to open up 18 holes. We do have some cart path issues that we have to solve but I’m pretty sure we’ll allow 18 holes of golf for walking,” said Kyle Crawford, director of the Hinton Golf Club.

Those who require a power cart may be limited to just nine holes to begin with. 

Under the current provincial COVID-19 restrictions, nobody will be allowed to enter the building other than one person at a time for the restrooms. This means golfers must pre-pay for their rounds via the website or calling in with a credit card.

Players can also purchase driving range buckets online for the driving range, which opened on May 6.

The club is in the process of redesigning the website and POS system for booking tee times and paying for green fees and memberships. Golfers are asked to show up no more than 15 minutes before their tee time.

Once they arrive, a staff member will be outside to direct them to use one cart per person, unless they are from the same household, and send them off to the first tee immediately.

“It is going to be a little rough from May 9 to the 14th but I think the people just want to be golfing. They understand that these guidelines are put in by the government and I think everybody will follow it,” Crawford said.

Once golfers are done their round, they can drop off their clubs at their vehicles before dropping the cart and anything else they used off in a designated sanitizing station to be sanitized for the next player.

Eighteen social distancing signs on the course, two on the driving range, and nine to remind players not to pick up any tees or anything will be displayed.

There will be no rakes in the bunkers, sleeves on the flags will say do not touch, and a cup system will be installed with a false bottom that allows golfers to get the ball out of the hole with their putter.

If the government moves into stage one of their relaunch strategy on May 14 as expected, the club will be able to open its pro shop to a limited number of people and the restaurant to half capacity.

In the meantime, grab and go food and beverage options will be available seven days per week while beverage cart services will be available Fridays through Sundays.

“The phone has been ringing off the hook so people are excited to golf and we’re going to do everything we can to make it safe for them and hopefully we’ll get more people to come out just based on word of mouth that we are taking every precaution that we can to make everyone safe,” said Crawford.

Wild Mountain now setting its sights on 2021

File Photo
The 2020 Wild Mountain Music Festival has been officially cancelled due to provincial health measures brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, so festival goers will have to wait until the 2021 event to see headlinders on the main stage. 

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

The Wild Mountain Music Society is setting its sight on 2021 after their 2020 festival was cancelled due to the current COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings in Alberta.

“We still have grant applications we can put in and get that going. Keeping a good relationship with our sponsors. And that gives us a little bit more time hopefully to start nibbling away at bands for next year,” said Layne Seabrook, president of the society.

With an extra year to plan, crews can spend more time on maintenance work on the stages and stores at the site, Seabrook said. While the society tried to remain positive about the situation, they are disappointed they won’t be welcoming back festival goers.

“It is too bad, it kind of interrupts the rhythm of our weekends in July. That’s just what you do, you book your weekend off for the Wild Mountain…” Seabrook said.

Due to the early uncertainty around the festival last year, organizers realized that there was a percentage of people that held off because they were under the impression that it was cancelled or they weren’t quite sure what the quality would be, according to Seabrook.

“We were quite excited about seeing those 20 or 30 per cent back at Wild Mountain again this year,” he said, adding that the event  normally attracts between 2,500 and 3,000 people every year. 

Seabrook added that a few society members would like to put on a show for the community once public gathering restrictions are expanded beyond 15 people.

“We would like to put on a show for the community. Just to get everyone back and reintroduce them to social life again,” he said.

Details of this event are dependent on what happens with the pandemic provincially and organizers will solidify any plans once guidelines change.

Seabrook added that the concert would likely showcase local artists and be a one-day event.

Sponsors of the festival have remained supportive and about 80 per cent have left their investment with the society for the 2021 festival. On top of financial investments, the society also has in-kind sponsors who are still fully committed.

Fortunately, the society was still in negotiations with most of its bands for 2020 and hadn’t paid any deposits yet.

“Normally it’s 50 per cent of the cost down, especially for headliners. Because we were still in negotiations we weren’t at the deposit part of it. We didn’t have any deposits to lose,” Seabrook said.

The way booking talent works is that the society first puts in an offer with any headliner, committing 50 per cent of the money until they accept or decline. They can only work with one headliner at a time to manage their budget, which is why the process takes some time.

They originally pushed to book a headliner by the end of January, which ended up not working out and they had not solidified a headliner since.

He added that the society will definitely keep bands lined up for 2021 that had committed to them in 2020. Since the 2019 Wild Mountain Music Festival was such a success and through the generosity of corporate sponsors, the society was able to put away some money, which will now all go towards 2021.

“We were able to have a decent amount of money in the bank. [The pandemic] hasn’t affected that at all,” Seabrook said.

Around 50 tickets were already sold for the 2020 festival, and more than half of those ticket holders want to keep their tickets for next year. Organizers are still finishing things up from the preparations of the 2020 festival, but all members will remain in their positions, Seabrook explained.

An annual general meeting (AGM) will be held in October and three board positions will be up for renewal or election. 

Contact Rob DeRoo at (780) 699-2641 for a refund of 2020 Wild Mountain tickets or to make arrangements to honour them for Wild Mountain 2021.

A look into Hinton’s emergency response

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

The first time Hinton’s Mayor, Marcel Michaels, found himself in an Emergency Operating Centre (EOC) was when a fire burned south of Hinton about a year and a half ago. The fire only lasted a few days and the EOC wrapped up its emergency planning quickly.

This time around, the EOC has lasted much longer and has had much bigger impacts on the community, Michaels said.

“This EOC has to look at the safety of our residents as another component while really looking at what we do as a municipality to sustain the new current economic conditions,” Michaels said.

Michaels signed off on both the EOC and the SOLE, while Emily Olsen as director of emergency management (DEM) overlooks the operations. The fire chief, the RCMP, and representatives from different realms within the community play a part in the process, Michaels added.

“I get a lot of communication and understanding but there are other people who are executing this stuff and making those decisions,” Michaels said.

Michaels believes the role of elected officials across the province is to be connected to their residents, many of whom are unsure about what’s going on. He’s chosen to communicate and inform the public about what he knows or what council knows via daily videos posted to Facebook.

“I get the opportunity to reach out to our MLA or other leaders in the province and get some of that information. And maybe explaining it a bit more concisely from a Hinton perspective to people, I felt was a benefit to our residents,” he said.

Michaels is asking for feedback from locals on what they’re experiencing, and what supports are working for them.

He added that there are gaps and knowing what the issues are will allow dialogue to address them.

“I urge people to keep expressing what they’re going through,” he said.

A low-level one EOC was initially implemented on March 13. Without knowing at first the scale and length of the municipal response required, Olsen’s decision to activate the EOC at level one was made to allow for a coordinated municipal response that could scale up if needed. 

“With the changing situation and unknown severity of the pandemic during the first few days, leaning into the Incident Command System (ICS) structure provided a way to organize ourselves and our meetings to separate our emergency response from our operational response,” Olsen said.

Once the EOC was activated, command staff including the deputy director of emergency management, information officer, liaison officer, risk management officer, scribe, and general staff, including the operations section chief and finance and admin section chief were notified through an emergency notification app, I Am Responding. 

“Of particular note, in this case, is the potential of financial impact. By activating the EOC, we log hours attached to the activation specifically in a manner that can be used in the future for reference and to ensure that provincial or federal reimbursement for emergency activity can occur,” stated Josh Yaworski, public information officer.

For the first two weeks of the pandemic, Olsen separated the DEM role from the Interim CAO role to more effectively manage the municipal and operational responses.

Olsen continued on as DEM and the Town’s director of development services, Peter Vana, was acting CAO, since both roles take substantial time to manage.

Olsen has since resumed both, with support from the senior leadership team and EOC staff.

“Mayor Michaels and council have also been great in allowing operational objectives to slow, and timelines adjusted to manage what we can,” Olsen said.

To enforce recommended social distancing practices, the EOC immediately closed some of the Town’s buildings to the public and reduced staff levels.

After a few weeks of dealing with COVID-19, the point came when officials needed extra measures to protect the community, Michaels said. EOC operators declared a state of local emergency (SOLE) on April 2.

“I think the rationale behind that is sort of analysing our community needs in Hinton and understanding what the provincial and federal governments do have huge impacts on our municipality. But at the same time, from a municipal standpoint, we have the personnel here that understands the needs that need to be addressed in Hinton,” Michaels explained.

The SOLE allowed the town to limit how many people were allowed in certain shopping areas or stores; specifications not given by higher government levels. Michaels explained this gave the EOC power to protect the community in areas where they saw shortcomings.

A decision was made to officially move to a level two activation of the EOC during the first week of April, as they “stood up” the planning section chief role, in addition to those already activated. 

The main difference of activation levels is the roles that are activated, but additional criteria is included in the Emergency Management Plans as a guide. 

“With a pandemic, some of those considerations for escalation aren’t as straightforward as with a fire or flood that may see condensed timelines for escalation, require shifts of EOC staff, involvement of multiple agencies, significant resources, and Provincial Emergency Operations Centre attendance in the Municipal EOC,” Olsen said. 

The EOC was able to manage objectives for the pandemic without moving to alternates, though specific strike teams were in place for increased sanitization of buildings, and for documentation processes.

The EOC first met every 24 hours, which moved to 48 hours, and now twice per week to review objectives and provide updates to manage any emerging issues and plan for recovery phases.

Michaels said the first few weeks were challenging, but oddly everyone is starting to feel somewhat normal under strange circumstances.

“I’m feeling better and feeling optimistic and at the end of the day, I think we have a lot of people in our municipality, in our province, and in our country that truly care and we’ll get through this,” Michaels said.

Olsen stated that further restrictions will be lifted in coming days.

At-home learning continues until end of school year

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

Teacher-directed at-home learning continues for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, reiterated Alberta’s Adriana LaGrange, Minister of Education, as the province engages the education system on a re-entry plan for September.

In-person classes have been cancelled since March 16 but teachers continue to work with the at-home learning guidelines established on March 20. LaGrange said that more than 90 per cent of school authorities are offering online learning, while about half are also emailing, telephoning and sending paper-based work to students.

About 60,000 laptops, Chromebooks, tablets and iPads have been provided to students by school authorities and the government as they learn from home. 

Parents can now reach a provincial education helpline where Alberta Education staff can address any questions and direct them to their school authorities. The intent is to provide advice to families, particularly to parents of children with disabilities, who have questions about their child’s program, LaGrange stated.

LaGrange also detailed re-entry plans for next school year, but no decisions have yet been made.

She stated that the province is working with school authorities and education system partners on developing a re-entry plan that considers three scenarios, which could exist by September. 

Scenario one will allow normal school operations to resume. Potential opening of K-12 schools, with restrictions is included in Alberta’s phase two of the relaunch strategy, but there is no way of knowing in which stage the province will be in September.

Scenario two will allow partial re-opening of schools with some levels of restriction, and scenario three will see teacher-directed at-home learning continuing.

LaGrange said their decisions would be based on recommendations from Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief health officer, and honour collective bargaining agreements. 

The ministry is currently looking at all options, including a relaunch with possible regionalizations based on COVID-19 data in particular areas.

LaGrange is looking for health protocols to be provided by Hinshaw, and to inform and enact how personal protective equipment (PPE) will be used in classrooms, buses, and other areas.

One reporter during the news conference on May 6 asked who would be covering the cost of additional PPE if scenario two goes ahead. LaGrange stated that right now the ministry is focused on developing a strong plan and that includes looking at all those pieces, including funds for PPE.

LaGrange was also asked if there will be cuts to education if teacher-directed at-home learning continues, to which she said that full funding is to be restored as of July 1

“The decisions early on were difficult. Every employee that we have and every staff member is a valued member of our staff team. Those decisions were made with the information we had at the time and a very quickly evolving pandemic with high costs,” she said.

Funding profiles were rolled out to every school division and they will all see an increase in their funding, LaGrange said.

Some school divisions already offer summer school programs, which are part of the re-entry plan discussions but no final decisions have been made yet. 

LaGrange believes it’s too early to make a deliberation of when a scenario will be chosen but that they continue to plan for all three.

Curriculum resources for parents and students are available on the website. Parents can reach the education helpline by calling 780-422-6548 or by emailing

Town fills provincially-funded FRN position

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

Hinton’s Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) hired a caregiver education coordinator as part of the new Family Resource Network (FRN).

FCSS provides prevention and early intervention services and support through this network.

Jackie Delves who is taking on the new position, worked at Parent Link in different roles since 2013 and most recently, she acted as the Parent Link supervisor since 2016. The Parent Link program shut down at the end of March along with all Parent Link centres across the province. Current limitations to the new position due to COVID-19 will affect how support will be offered.

“We are unable to offer in-person supports, so contact will be shifted to online and phone,” said Josh Yaworski, public information officer of Hinton’s emergency operating centre (EOC).

Delves has extensive experience working with the families in the community, and will use those connections to connect with families through online and phone contact to offer support while COVID-19 restrictions remain in place, Yaworski said. She also has strong connections with local agencies; she will work with other local groups to collaboratively offer support.

The new position is a part-time, fully grant-funded position that offers education and support to caregivers to increase their capacity to create safe, responsive, and nurturing environments and encourage healthy child development. Caregiver education includes formal and informal workshops on issues related to parenting for parents and caregivers.

The new position will also offer one-on-one support to caregivers to strengthen their parenting skills, increase their capacity, and strengthen their connections with their children. An information portal will be provided that connects parents with the programs, tools, and resources available.

Yaworski stated that Delves’ experience of supporting families with education, resources, support, and referrals made her the ideal candidate for the Caregiver Education Coordinator position.

“She will bring her valuable knowledge and experience in developing programming, supervision, and liaising within the Hinton community to this new position,” he said.

Delves moved from a full-time position to a part-time position, and her office has moved from the Parent Link facility to the West Fraser Guild.

The Town was awarded a three-year grant for approximately $78,000 per year allocated to support the independent program budget and provide Caregiver Education and Support Services for caregivers with children ages 0-18. Since the Town only received provincial support to offer Caregiver Education Services, it is assessing next steps for the Parent Link space.  

“We will also assess the impact on families and the community of the overall and individual components of the Parent Link program that have been lost due to the permanent elimination of the Parent Link Model and its associated provincial funding,” said Yaworski.

The town will hire a casual position to support the Caregiver Education Coordinator, but not until the COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted. The casual employee’s primary role will be providing support in the delivery of frontline programs and information.

AB relaunch strategy earlier than expected

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

With the Provincial announcement to reduce COVID-19 restrictions, Hinton’s Emergency Operating Centre (EOC) adjusted their plan to move up some of their own relaunch strategy.

The number permitted for public gatherings in Hinton changed from 5 to the Province’s limit of 15 on May 1. The opening of Municipal Park parking lots, the disc golf course, and mountain bike park were also moved up. 

Further restrictions will be lifted over the next 10 days, but EOC staff will be monitoring local impacts and the Province’s timelines for any changes, said Emily Olsen, director of emergency management (DEM).

Restrictions and their removal have been discussed with the Hinton Healthcare Centre to ensure plans are reasonable and won’t pose a level of risk or impacts to their operations.

“It is important that the removal of restrictions be coordinated with many perspectives and sources of information considered,” Olsen stated.

First phase removal of restrictions were determined to pose a low risk, and the next phase will first be confirmed through additional consultation with the Healthcare Centre, Emergency Advisory Committee, Alberta Emergency Management Agency.

The collective efforts and sacrifices of Albertans were credited by Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, and Premiere Jason Kenney for prompting the provincial relaunch strategy.

While details of the first phase of the relaunch were announced on Thursday, April 30, Hinshaw stressed that the fight against COVID-19 is far from over. 

Each phase of the relaunch will be initiated after careful consideration by medical professionals.

“Please continue to wash your hands, stay home when you are sick, maintain physical distance from others, stay socially connected, and look out for your friends, family and community as we progress through each stage,” Hinshaw said.

The first actions were taken to lift restrictions including vehicle access to parking lots and staging areas on public land and parks, and access to boat launches in select provincial parks as of May 1.

Golf courses were given the green light on May 2, with restrictions to keep clubhouses and pro shops closed, and on May 4, Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced some scheduled, non-urgent surgeries would resume, as well as dental and other regulated health-care services.

Next up is Alberta Parks’ online campground reservation system, which opens on May 14 for bookings at select campgrounds starting June 1 onward.

Before moving into phase one, important elements monitored include enhanced testing capacity, contact tracing, support  to isolate those who test positive of COVID-19, airport screening and monitoring international borders, public use of masks, protections of most vulnerable, and ensuring a rapid outbreak response.

Premiere Kenney stated that stage one could be implemented as soon as May 14.

Moving through each stage depends on keeping infection rates low and within the capacity of the healthcare system, he said.

Stage one includes some reopening of businesses and services while physical distancing measures remain in place.

The Alberta Government has put together a document that outlines the criteria for policies and procedures all workplaces are expected to develop and implement prior to operations after May 1. Guidance is subject to change and will be updated as appropriate. Local businesses can find this on the Hinton and District Chamber of Commerce website.

The size of permitted gatherings in Alberta won’t increase until phase two, and is determined by the success of stage one, consider the capacity of the healthcare system and the rate of infections, hospitalization, and ICU cases.

Stage two will allow additional businesses and services to reopen and resume operations with two metre physical distancing requirements and other public health guidelines in place. 

The final stage, stage three, will open all final workplaces and relax restrictions on public gatherings.

Kenney explained that every phase will have an evaluation or monitoring period where they can adjust measures based on the data.

Two-metre distancing from others is mandatory across the country, but provinces ranged in restrictions on public gatherings from 0 people in Quebec to 50 people in B.C.

All provinces suspended dine-in restaurant services, encouraged virtual and curbside only services for businesses, and moved k-12 learning online.

The ABTraceTogether app has been launched to enhance current manual contact tracing and capacity, and facilitate early detection to help reduce the spread of the virus and better protect Albertans. 

The app will allow Albertans to be contacted more quickly if they are at risk, it is voluntary and does not track the user’s physical location through GPS. 

All contact data is only on the user’s phone and is deleted after 21 days.  

The province announced a $4.5-million investment in new virus detecting equipment and technology on May 5.

The funding includes a $1.7-million donation by Calgary Health Trust, with Alberta Health Services and the Government of Alberta making up the balance. 

This investment will increase COVID-19 testing from 7,000 to 16,000 tests per day, more than doubling Alberta’s maximum capacity for testing.

COVID driving collaboration, innovation: mayors

West Yellowhead Mayors Business Support Event via zoom on Monday, May 4. From left to right, top to bottom: Louise Gale, workforce consultant from Alberta Labour and Immigration; Richard Ireland, mayor of Jasper; Jim Eglinski, mayor of Yellowhead County; Nancy Robbins, general manager of Community Futures West Yellowhead; Kevin Zahara, mayor of Edson; and Marcel Michaels, mayor of Hinton.

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

Hinton working with businesses, will announce economic recovery plan

Mayors of Hinton, Jasper, Edson, and Yellowhead County each pointed out that businesses within their communities are working collaboratively to help each other through this crisis and are finding new innovative ways to keep their businesses afloat. 

The mayors discussed issues businesses are dealing with through the COVID-19 pandemic and answered questions from local businesses during a public zoom event hosted by business support organization, Community Futures West Yellowhead (CFWY) on May 4.

During the session, Hinton Mayor Marcel Michaels said changes to the current COVID-19 related restrictions would be made locally in response to the provincial relaunch strategy.

He said the emergency operation centre (EOC) operators are looking at the state of local emergency (SOLE), but that no date of when it would be lifted has been announced.

“There will be changes, the EOC is working on communicating with all businesses and the struggles that are there,” he said.

Michaels said the reason the SOLE hasn’t been lifted yet is to allow the town to respond quickly in case there is a spike in the cases of COVID-19.

Safety remains their number one concern and driving force for any decisions.

The Town of Hinton will announce an economic recovery plan and the EOC team has worked with businesses within the community, said Michaels.

The town is listening to the concerns of businesses and helping them comply with restrictions, he continued.

In the meantime, businesses have taken advantage of the online platform which is now shifting to become the status quo, Michaels said.

“It felt like we’ve gone from 2019 to 2040, we just skipped two decades and this is the world we would’ve seen in 2040 that we’re experiencing now. It’s taking advantage of it, meeting more, and reaching out to partners who may not be in our community,” Michaels said.

A push for alternative ways to do business and using online platforms to expand horizons and allow a customer base outside of the traditional trading areas has been a benefit, said Edson mayor Kevin Zahara.

Jim Eglinski, mayor of Yellowhead County added that essential services have also done a great job in protecting the public and adapting to safety measures while they remained open.

He noted that families are also spending more time outdoors together while physically distancing and hopes the provincial government will reconsider the fire ban in the forest protection area to allow county residents to continue enjoying the outdoors.

Michaels and mayor of Jasper, Richard Ireland, both spoke to the hits their tourism sectors have taken this year.

Michaels said the focus now is on 2021 and creating a plan with the province and all municipalities involved to work together. 

Prior to the pandemic, Hinton lost its funding for the visitor information centre, and Michaels believes the community is behind in terms of tourism.

Ireland added that the federal government is recognizing tourism as an important need, specifically for communities like Jasper that almost entirely depend on tourism.

“There seems to be a growing recognition at a federal level in particular of the need to find additional support for tourism generally,” he said.

Mayors also touched on the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program for small businesses that offers forgivable loans to eligible commercial property owners to reduce the rent owed by tenants by at least 75 per cent for the months of April, May and June.

“We want to know from the business perspective, does this fill your needs? You have a landlord who can get a 75 per cent subsidy if they own the building. Will this work through June to sustain some damages done financially in loss of income?” said Michaels.

Ireland noted one problem with the program is that requirements aren’t as clear as they need to be. 

Initially when the program rolled out, it seemed it was only applicable to any commercial landlords who hold a mortgage, which has now softened, he explained.

Ireland said that a push for clarity from the provincial level is still needed in this program.

With more businesses moving online, one business asked how municipalities would support the development of accessible, reliable, affordable, high quality, rural internet access, which is critical for businesses.

Michaels answered that while Hinton itself has great coverage, he would love to see better service along the highway.

Eglinski said a number of towers have been built and two more are planned for the Hinton area for emergency services that can also be used by internet providers.

CFWY is working on recovery products for businesses and are scrambling to prepare for the relaunch strategy that was announced by the provincial government.

The goal of the mayor’s event was to better understand what is working for businesses and what is not working, what innovations businesses have used to adapt, and what supports are still required.

Michaels stated that many decisions on how to handle the crisis have been made over the last four to six weeks and he wants to know what areas still need to be covered.

“Where are the cracks, what are you experiencing? Whether it’s rent subsidies, deferral in taxes from municipalities,” he said

Eglinksi stated that it is important to gather feedback from businesses in order to move forward to senior government levels and work with them towards recovery of the local area.

With the easing of restrictions now being announced, local businesses have a lot of questions on what that will look like and how they will keep themselves safe, Zahara added.

He noted that some questions regarding protocols and standards around businesses reopening will need to be answered by the provincial government before stage one of the relaunch, especially when it comes to where businesses can get proper personal protective equipment.

“We are not only fighting what’s going on with COVID-19 but we also have a fallout of natural gas and oil prices here in West Yellowhead as well, which has some impacts,” Zahara said.

Nancy Robbins from CFWY said funding from the Federal government is being funnelled through CFWY and will be available for businesses who aren’t eligible for federal programming. Contact CFWY for more information about funds and support locally.

Watch the full video below:

Jasper mayor asks visitors to stay away for now

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

The Municipality of Jasper reminded Albertans this past weekend that restrictions for national parks remain in place and are not included in the provincial relaunch strategy that opened provincial parks on May 1.

With the nice weather on Saturday, officials did notice popular trailheads and day-use areas outside of the town site were being used, however, it was difficult to determine just how many of those people were residents or visitors. 

“We did have a bylaw enforcement officer monitoring the east entrance of town throughout the weekend,” said Kayla Byrne, legislative services coordinator.

Since residents of Jasper National Park are issued resident passes for their vehicles each year; bylaw enforcement were able to record 137 vehicles without resident passes who entered the town site on Saturday from about 12:30 pm until 4:30 pm. During the time period on Sunday, an officer recorded 45 vehicles without a pass. 

“Those numbers don’t necessarily mean we saw that many visitors in the town as some residents may have not yet updated to their 2020 resident pass or some of those vehicles could have been fueling up as they pass through on the highway,” said Byrne.

The municipality itself seemed quiet as most businesses remain closed, she added. All visitor facilities and tourism spots remain closed and Jasper’s mayor, Richard Ireland, urges anyone planning a leisure trip to Jasper or Jasper National Park before June 1 to cancel their plans. 

Parks Canada suspended camping, group activities, and events across the country until at least May 31, to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

“While Canada Parks is strategizing its resumption of visitor services, the fact is that parks facilities remain closed and that is significant. We continue to say to all of our potential guests and people, that we want to come and visit when the time is right, that now is still not the time to visit Jasper,” said Ireland.

The timeline may change based on provincial health directives and announcements by Parks Canada, but visitors are best to stay at home in the meantime. While interprovincial travel is still discouraged, some travellers continue to drive through the park on the Yellowhead Highway, which remains open.

Ireland said it’s certainly possible for people who are passing through to stop for gas or spend the night if required. 

“The facts are there, some people are still traveling and staying here. It’s not a case of us being overwhelmed at this stage,” Ireland stated.

Most hotels are currently closed or have taken mitigative steps to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Due to the overall lack of visitation, the few travellers who are stopping stand out in the more quiet streets of Jasper than normal.

“Now that the province has announced its relaunch strategy we have to take additional care that people are not confused between what is happening with provincial parks and what is happening in the national parks,” Ireland said.

All campgrounds within the park and visitor services remain closed and most businesses and hotels are either closed or operating with restricted services.

“We still have to be very careful, because we are a small town with a very small hospital and it could get overwhelmed. It hasn’t happened and hopefully it won’t, but we have to remain guarded in that respect,” Ireland said.

Jasper has had nine local cases of COVID-19, and while six have recovered, one person died, according to the Government of Alberta website.

Ireland believes the Jasper hospital has done a spectacular job and hasn’t been overwhelmed by any outbreak but doesn’t know if any local COVID-19 cases required hospitalization.

“It means we are doing the right thing with social and physical distancing and the restrictions that are in place,” Ireland said.

Local law enforcement agencies are monitoring traffic in town, at local trailheads and other points of interest, stated a news release from the municipality.

The community is working with its local businesses and community partners towards an economic recovery plan, and Ireland stated that regional visitors will play a key role in supporting the tourism economy when it is safe.

The plan is to bring particular industry members to a common table with agencies in town that are dealing specifically with economic and business issues, Ireland said.

The municipality, Parks Canada, and some of Jasper’s major attractions will focus on how to work together to ensure the best possible result for the local economy and for the community from a social perspective. 

“We recognize that our community is a major part of the tourism product here. People just like to come and visit Jasper, so we have to have a healthy community at the same time as we regrow a healthy local economy,” Ireland said.

Ireland believes the response from businesses has been spectacular and they recognized early on that they had a responsibility to shut down.

“Initially there was an absolutely phenomenal response, just in the face of the concern,” he said.

Some businesses reassessed after the provincial restrictions became known and some opened on a limited basis. For the time being, Jasper’s businesses are going to be reliant on regional traffic as they try to keep their community safe and limit visitors. Ireland added that it doesn’t look like international travel will resume any time soon.

“When it’s responsible to do so, we will absolutely welcome [visitors] with open arms,” Ireland said.

Jasper’s officials want to see visitors come back and recognize how this transition is going to unfold. Everybody is still encouraged to stay at home and when the Municipality of Jasper is ready to change that message and welcome visitors again, they will do so.

“We will not change our messaging until it is safe and responsible to do that,” Ireland said.