While the new COVID-19 case numbers have retreated somewhat at the back end of this week, they remain disturbingly high. In the Southwestern Public Health region as of Friday, two key indicators are red-flagged.
The percent positivity rate has risen sharply to six per cent, with a number above five meaning there is widespread community transmission at this moment.
As recently as mid-October the number was well below one per cent.
And, the ongoing cumulative confirmed case rate per 100,000 population sits at 166.4 for the health unit’s coverage area. For St. Thomas. it is even higher at 169.6, although it has dropped significantly this week.
Any number above 40 per 100,000 population is enough to keep the region in the COVID-19 Red-Control or Grey-Lockdown zone. Continue reading →
As city residents transitioned from Christmas celebrations to life under a minimum 28-day province-wide shutdown, we chatted with Mayor Joe Preston on how this will impact the administration’s game plan for 2021.
Considering council and administration accomplished much in a year we would otherwise like to forget.
That includes a new transit system that will begin to take shape this month, the impressive number of building permits issued in 2020, construction projects underway like the residential development on the Alma College site, new industries like Element5 springing up, affordable housing projects and a new civic park project to be developed on the site of the former police headquarters.
Always upbeat, Preston began by pointing out city hall will remain open during this time while other municipalities have chosen to keep their administrative offices closed.
Do you have the feeling we’ve spent the last nine months trying our best – most of us, that is – only to find we’re right back at Square 1 with a shut down effective Monday.
A whole lot of one step forward and two steps back.
We spoke with Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek on Tuesday (Dec. 22) about his government’s decision to wind many things down for a minimum of 28 days.
And, why wait almost a week instead of starting Christmas Eve as was originally planned.
“The key to the lockdown is to open up space in the hospitals,” advised Yurek, “especially the ICU rooms across the province. We’re getting almost to capacity and you need the space in order to have other emergency surgeries like heart, stroke, etc. open for those spaces.”
As of Thursday, Southwestern Public Health was advising of eight hospitalizations across the region due to COVID-19 infections with two of those individuals in the ICU.
“That’s the key criteria,” continued Yurek, “to keep the cases numbers down and open up capacity in the hospitals. The doctors have informed us four weeks should be a good enough time period to do so.”
The magnificent edifice at the corner of Talbot and Mary Streets, formally known as the Mickleborough building, has had a bit of an uncertain future over the past three years.
It was the former home of Ontario Works before the city purchased it from London developer Shmuel Farhi in March of 2017.
It dates back to the early 1900s and was designed by St. Thomas architect Neil Darrach. Its appraised value at the time of the sale was $4 million.
Under the deal, Farhi Holdings was to donate $2.3 million in exchange for a tax receipt and the city would pay the remaining $1.7 million.
The intent at the time was to partner with the Central Community Health Centre in hopes of consolidating their operations into the structure that once housed the British mainstay Marks and Spencer in the 1970s and Huston’s Fine Furniture into the 1990s.
Added to its functions this year was transforming a portion of the stately building to serve as a day shelter for the homeless.
A far cry from the home of fine furniture.
Picking up from Monday’s 2021 city budget deliberations, council had directed administration to pare back the municipal property tax levy from 2.48 per cent to 1.5 per cent in deference to the economic impact on ratepayers of the coronavirus.
That request by council translated into cutting about $572,000 from the proposed capital and operating budgets.
Council indicated a priority would be to maintain as much as possible the tax-base contribution to the capital budget and minimize the impact on service delivery in the operating budget.
In other words, find the savings without cutting services.
To deliver on council’s request city manager Wendell Graves and department heads held a pair of meetings on Tuesday of this week to ferret out possible sources of savings.
As a result, council grants to community groups and organizations will be cut by $75,000 in the new year. Leaving about $210,000 in the grant kitty to distribute in 2021.
It was agreed to reduce Community Improvement Program funding by $200,000.
City council will hold two meetings this coming week to begin deliberations on 2021 proposed operating and capital budgets.
The first will start immediately after Monday’s (Dec. 7) council meeting which begins at 5 p.m., with the second to be held the following day starting at 5 p.m.
As it stands now, the budget calls for a 2.48 per cent increase to the property tax levy next year.
Capital projects as proposed would require just under $41 million in funding and, if passed by council, would mark the largest capital budget where debt was not drawn.
Items in the capital budget recommended for approval include up to five electric light-duty vehicles as the city begins to make good on reducing its carbon footprint.
The biggest project at $10.8 million is rebuilding Fairview Avenue from Elm Street to Southdale Line.
Annual road rehabilitation comes in at $2 million and the ongoing Complete Streets program next year will require $6.8 million.
A sobering report released this week that brings into perspective the impact manufacturing’s decline has had on southwestern Ontario’s median household income through 2015 (the last year of available census data).
The report’s author Ben Eisen, a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute, notes Windsor falls from 10th highest median household income to 25th while London falls from 15th to 27th (out of 36 Canadian metropolitan centres).
St. Thomas is included in the London Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) and so the report has important local relevance.
Eisen’s work covers the period between 2005 and 2015 and so it is a look back in time and the next census in 2021 may give a clearer picture of where we are today.
For many of us, we’ve settled into a pandemic dictated routine where our days are punctuated with Zoom meetings interspersed with live-streamed gatherings, exponentially increasing our screen time. Leaving us to wonder how much of this will pivot over to the new reality? But what happens when one of these feeds fails or the audio stream is so out of whack it is impossible to follow along? It has happened twice this month with city council: once with a reference committee meeting dealing with community grants and again this week with the scheduled council meeting.
Mayor Joe Preston and Police Chief Chris Herridge have both cut to the chase when talking about today’s (Saturday) Freedom Rally in St. Thomas: “We do not want this protest.” It’s the third such rally in less than a month in the region at a time when the province is tightening up restrictions due to a rapid increase in COVID-19 infections. In speaking with Herridge this week, he stressed “should they come here they could face charges. “But if you say ‘no’ to the arena (Memorial Arena, where the protesters are meeting up) they’re going to show up. And, we do not want what happened in Aylmer (where the march through town forced detours at numerous locations).”
The city likes to refer to it as “unintended consequences,” we prefer a consequential collapse in communication.
We’re referring, of course, to last month’s surprise announcement the city is to proceed with a procurement process to designate new operators for the EarlyON system in St. Thomas-Elgin.
Community Living Elgin (CLE) has been the agency to deliver the EarlyON program since July of 2018.
One of the “unintended consequences” is the realization the city cannot possibly have the new delivery model in place for the Jan. 1, 2021 launch.
This is required to offer a seamless transition from the old model as the CLE agreement with the city expires at the end of this year.
And so the existing agreement will have to be extended into the new year in order to get the new operator(s) up to speed.
Earlier this week, Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek announced $928,000 in funding to support the purchase of a new building for a permanent emergency shelter.
A facility Yurek noted that will be, “a stable facility from which dedicated local service providers can continue to carry out their important, lifesaving work.”
Such a shelter was one of the areas touched upon last month during a meeting between Mayor Joe Preston and downtown merchants who vented their frustration with the lack of attention paid to the plight of the homeless in the core area.
What Preston referred to as “solving the problems of the people causing the problems.”
As hoped for, the city this week released the request for proposal (RFP) for the delivery of the EarlyON program in St. Thomas and Elgin county. While it provides some insight and clarification on the new direction, there are questions and concerns on the part of the city, based on the two-page addendum that accompanies the RFP document. The preamble notes, “The City of St. Thomas is issuing this Request for Proposal (RFP) to seek successful proponents who will operate EarlyON Child and Family Centres in St. Thomas and Elgin County. “For the purposes of the delivery of EarlyON Child and Family Centre programs and services, three distinct Service Delivery Zones have been created: West, Central and East.”
Oh, how those “unintended consequences” can come back to bite you big time.
While members of council were woefully negligent in their handling of the procurement process to designate three operators for the
EarlyON system in St. Thomas-Elgin, it is doubtful the report from Teresa Sulowski, supervisor of children’s services will be revisited.
However it would appear, via a conversation this week with city manager Wendell Graves, a re-think on portions of the process may be in the offing, if not already underway.
The recommendation before council at the Sept. 21 meeting appeared straightforward enough: That council grants permission to proceed with a procurement process to designate three operators for the
EarlyON system in St. Thomas-Elgin.
Now, either the mayor and councillors did not fully read the report from Teresa Sulowski, supervisor of children’s services – it was two pages in length – or they failed to comprehend the possible implications of what she is proposing.
In any event, the opportunity was there for any member of council to seek clarification or request further information.
Instead, the far-reaching report was approved in a matter of 38 seconds with nary a question or comment.
Love where you shop.
That’s the branding employed by the St. Thomas Downtown Development Board as they promote shopping in the city’s historic core area along Talbot Street.
Although in this exceptional year, the downtown merchants have faced a double whammy: shuttering for several months due to the coronavirus and having to contend with the homeless who wander Talbot Street and frequent the back lanes.
Although they are now open again, for the most part, many shoppers are leery to venture downtown citing the less than inviting atmosphere.
It was not your typical venue in which Mayor Joe Preston was able to meet with constituents.
Thursday morning’s face-to-face with frustrated downtown merchants played out along a back alley that every morning is littered with discarded drug paraphernalia and other detritus of the downtrodden.
It’s a habitat for the homeless and those with mental health issues who utilize back doorsteps and alcoves as personal relief stations.
Hidden from passersby on Talbot Street, it’s where staff often find the less fortunate huddled, unconscious or attempting to harm themselves.
It was against this desperate backdrop that a dozen or so core merchants – already pummelled financially by the pandemic – pleaded with Preston to return this stretch of the downtown corridor to a more inviting destination for shoppers.
With COVID-19 testing centres in London overwhelmed this week as a result of the Western University outbreak and the province aiming to up the testing across the province to 50,000 per day in short order, what is the status of the assessment centre at St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital?
President and CEO Robert Biron says there has been an uptick in the number of daily tests however there is spare capacity at the centre.
Speaking with Biron this week he confirmed, “Yes, we are seeing an influx from a number of sources.
Earlier this spring, we referred to them as the other victims of the coronavirus. Those individuals whose lives had been put on hold as their elective surgeries and procedures were postponed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At that time, the province released details of the framework to be adhered to by hospitals as they prepared to tackle the backlog of surgeries.
St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital president and CEO Robert Biron said there was a backlog of well over 1,000 surgeries staff would have to deal with.
Moving forward, a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal at the end of August suggested clearing the backlog across the province could take 84 weeks.
City council returns to its regular meeting schedule as of Tuesday and that includes the reference committee sessions which begin once the 6 p.m. meeting concludes.
Of interest on the reference committee agenda is an update on the city’s strategic plan which was originally adopted by city council in May of 2013.
The city engaged the services of Fanshawe Corporate Training Solutions in June of last year to assist in the plan update.
The idea is to develop a short list of strategic themes for the city’s path forward.
Forget the Railway Capital of Canada. If this keeps up we’ll be the mural masters of Canada.
Have you spotted the latest mural masterpiece?
It’s a field of poppies gracing the back wall of the little strip mall on Princess Avenue. It serves as the perfect backdrop to Veterans Memorial Garden across the L&PS tracks.
The approximately 2,500-square-foot mural is the creation of London-based artist Andrew Lewis.
His award-winning corporate branding, packaging and poster art are internationally recognized. His clients include Canada Post, the Royal Canadian Mint, Starbucks and VISA.
With the start up of school still scheduled for Sept. 8, there has been no shortage of discussion, policy initiation, concern and disagreement over what life should look like in the classroom. Equally important, but less documented, what about that important trip to and from school for students whose day starts and ends aboard the cramped confines of a school bus? It should be obvious there is far more social contact on a bus than in a classroom. We had a lengthy discussion this week with Kevin Murray, branch manager in the St. Thomas office of First Student Inc., who advised he is still awaiting the final route information from Southwestern Ontario Student Transportation Services (STS).
Parents will know them as My Big Yellow Bus and they serve as the transportation consortium for the London District Catholic School Board and the Thames Valley District School Board. Bus registration to be undertaken by parents closed out Aug. 18. Murray does know seating on the buses will be limited to a maximum of 46 people. “And that’s for grade schools and that’s basically two people per seat except the seat behind the driver which is going to be left empty.” Here’s where it gets interesting as windows will be left open as much as possible. “Obviously, common sense will dictate when it’s pouring down rain or it’s a blizzard, the windows won’t be open.” All children in Grade 4 and up will be mandated to wear masks on the bus. “For kids in Grade 3 and under it is being recommended,” noted Murray. “And that’s from documentation sent out by STS asking parents to do that as well.” With parents having to opt in for bus transportation this school year, Murray says the hope is there will be fewer students on the buses. “They are expecting more parents to drive their kids this year and that is why they are arranging for a drop-off near the school . . . to reduce congestion at the school.” As a possible example for John Wise Public School in St. Thomas, Murray suggested the St. Thomas Curling Club might be used and then parents can walk their child down to the school. As for the drivers, Murray assured they will be wearing a mask at all times. “Which they will be provided with. They will be provided with a face shield that they will wear whenever kids are getting on and off the bus. “So there is far less chance of making any contact with particulants from the children’s mouths.” Drivers will have constant access to hand sanitizer. “And, buses will be cleaned and disinfected after every route in the morning and afternoon.” Murray is anticipating an announcement next week from STS basically stating, “We feel that our drivers are as safe on the bus as they would be in a grocery store.” Murray adds, according to STS figures, “Sixty per cent of all routes have the children on a bus for 15 minutes or less.” Obviously, that is for trips within St. Thomas. When you look at schools like St. Anne’s and Msgr. Morrison, Murray notes “They are being drawn in from all over the county and they will be riding the bus longer.” A key question that has yet to be answered is what if a particular bus is scheduled to have 49 students aboard, what happens then? Murray concedes, “We did have buses last year that had 65 to 70 kids on board. With the little kids, they are three to a seat.” Murray noted there are some bus runs where kids from two or three different schools may be on board at the same time. “What’s going to happen is the schools will be responsible for seating plans.”
So, one side of the bus might be for School A and the other for School B. “The seating plans will be based on the younger kids being moved closer to the front, as it normally is. Siblings will sit together this year on the bus. And kids in classrooms will sit together. “What they’re trying to do is keep as much intermingling out of it as much as possible. “As for high school kids, they’re encouraged that the first ones on the bus will be the ones sitting at the back of the bus and in the afternoon, the first ones who get off should be the ones sitting closer to the front. “There are policies in place to try and keep our drivers and the students as safe as possible. But we’re also dealing with the parameters of numbers. “Parents are really encouraged this year to make sure their kids are following the rules. Sit on the bus, keep your feet on the floor and look forward. “No interaction because you’re on that bus for a purpose. And that is to get to school safely.” Murray notes he has only been doing performing this job function since last September and as of March 13 with the onset of the pandemic, it has been interesting, a definite understatement. It takes time and it just makes the 8th of September a little more stressful, he observes. “I’m confident, what with the policies that have been put in place and what we’ve thought about here and with First Student being an international company, they really have been ahead of the curve right from the start.”
BRING ON THE ICE
At a special meeting of city council this past Tuesday, (Aug. 18), members gave the green light to city staff to begin the process of installing ice at the Joe Thornton Community Centre. For the time being, Memorial Arena won’t be out in the cold as ice will not go into the venerable facility until a future date. User groups have been asked for copies of their safe operating procedures for staff to review. As per provincial regulations announced earlier this month, 50 people are allowed in each rentable space in the facilities at one time. Both the Joe Thornton Community Centre and Memorial Arena have three rentable spaces each. Having received council’s approval to proceed, Ross Tucker, director of parks, recreation and property management, indicated city staff will begin installing ice for rentals starting early next month. He indicated it will take approximately two weeks to get ice ready for use in the two pads at the Joe Thornton Community Centre. As to a question from Coun. Steve Peters regarding the availability of time for public skating, Tucker responded, “At this stage, there are a number of programs we’re looking at, including public skating. “Public skating is one of the things we’re looking at once we get an accurate count from the user groups on how many hours they want to use.” Most user groups are still awaiting confirmation from leagues and other organizations on how much time will be required and so the city is working from estimates at this time, advised Tucker.
Peters continued, “I would really like to see us find some allocation for public skating.” Tucker noted a system will be established for use of the walking tracking around the main rink at the community centr This will necessitate a booking system rather than just dropping in to use the track. Casual and part-time staff will need to be hired to undertake the additional required cleaning. Tucker said an additional $500 per month has been targetted for additional cleaning supplies which he hopes to absorb in his department’s budget. Treasurer Dan Sheridan indicated, in recent years, the Joe Thornton Centre has generated about $90,000 per month in ice revenue. Tucker does not anticipate city youth programs will operate prior to this winter.
GOING FOR THE YARDAGE
Like many other similar facilities across the province, Pearce-Williams Summer Camp has suffered a financial body blow thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. As camp executive director Joe Richards points out, the facility has been a “home away from home” for children, teenagers and adults for 60 years. Camp director Lindsey Feltis adds, “Pearce Williams gives young people the opportunity to become the best version of themselves in a safe and supportive environment.” “We often hear from camp alumni who tell us that the things they learned at camp have helped them well into adulthood – as people, as parents and as business owners.” Well, the summer the jubilant campers have been replaced by groups of temporary foreign workers self-isolating for 14 days before moving on to their place of employment. In the process, creating financial uncertainty for the camp. Leave it to a golf instructor to swing into the picture. Johann Kinting, of GolfLondon.ca and founder/director of Junior Golf at Iron Creek Country Club east of St. Thomas, understands the positive impact of the camp on families.
He notes, “Pearce Williams truly is a community that benefits all ages. The positive impact camp has on families along with the support and encouragement I felt at Pearce Williams played a pivotal role in helping me launch my business.” And, what better way to financially assist Pearce-Williams than to rely on what Kinting does very well . . . drive a golf ball. At first, he toyed with driving a golf ball all the way from the first tee at Iron Creek to Pearce Williams, about 39 kilometres.
It didn’t take long to see how impractical that would be, not to mention dangerous for all involved. Instead, Kinting will drive golf balls off the first tee at Iron Creek next Friday, Aug. 28 until he has whacked them a total of 42,650 yards, the distance from the tee to the camp near Iona. At an average of 250 yards per drive, he figures 172 shots should do it. And, should take about four hours. He calls the fundraiser Driving Fore Dollars and you can sponsor him by the ball or yardage at campisbetter.ca Corporate sponsorships are also available. “Every donation makes a difference during these challenging times,” stresses Richards. “We are excited to be working with Johann and Iron Creek to make this fundraiser a success.” And prove once and for all that Johann really is a swinging kind of guy.
THE READER’S WRITE
Responding to our item last week on the proposal to re-purpose the second floor of the downtown transit building into micro-apartments, Timothy Hedden responded on Twitter with the following.
“Further development downtown and increased population density will be the way we best help revitalize the core and help small business. Great job on the transit building! The ongoing mural projects look great as well!”
Questions and comments may be emailed toCity Scope
As expected, city council on Monday (Aug. 10) unanimously approved a municipal bylaw which supports the letter of instruction issued at the end of last month by Southwestern Public Health requiring the use of face coverings by individuals inside buildings where there is access to the public. The bylaw will be in effect until Jan. 15 of next year at which time the need to extend it will be evaluated But, is it little more than window dressing? City manager Wendell Graves says the intent now is to train enforcement staff to ensure they understand how the bylaw is to be applied. Read into that it is unlikely to ever be enforced. Instead, it will be servers, cashiers and front-line staff who will face the wrath of belligerent customers who stubbornly refuse to wear a mask because it is their right to do so.
At a luncheon held at the beginning of the year at St. Anne’s Centre, St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston was nothing short of blunt when it came to the city’s bus system. “It leaves way too much to be desired. Our transit system doesn’t run on Sundays and it doesn’t run past 6:30 at night.” As those in attendance lingered over coffee and dessert, Joe reminded them the city has approval from the provincial government to help institute a full seven-day service operating over longer hours. That approval was delivered on August 8 of last year in front of city hall when Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek confirmed the provincial government is committing $1.8 million for transit projects in St. Thomas. The money will be used for fleet upgrades – including the purchase of 10 new buses with an additional four vehicles for future expansion – and transit technology, including priority signalling for buses at designated intersections.
The feelers have been out there for some time now, and last week’s interview with Dr. Joyce Lock, Southwestern Public Health medical officer of health, confirmed the wearing of face masks in enclosed public places was soon to be mandatory in this COVID-19 marathon. Dr. Lock sealed the deal via a teleconference Thursday (July 30). There are those who will argue this should have been done back in the spring as the pandemic embers flared into a full-blown blaze. Our neighbour to the north made the wearing of face coverings compulsory exactly two weeks ago, so why the lag time in the health unit’s watershed? Dr. Lock touched on that last week noting, “we’re working step in step with our municipal partners to make it as simple a process as possible for individuals, businesses and organizations across our geography.”