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.
MPP Jeff Yurek’s office has been the target of a couple of healthcare-related protests over the past few weeks, with the latest being yesterday (Friday). About 30 nurses gathered over the noon hour to protest against Bill 124 and the lack of pay equity in the bill supported by Yurek. It caps public sector wage increases to no greater than one per cent for three years. Nurses ask health care is included in the public sector but why are physicians exempt. The nurses stress this is not about pandemic pay and we caught up with Rebecca Jesney, an RN in the emergency department at London’s Victoria Hospital, to learn more. “Nurses are realizing the Doug Ford government as well as Jeff Yurek, are affecting nurses specifically and targetting us at a time when we’re supposed to be recognized as heroes. “Nurses have had enough.”
Monday’s (June 29) announcement may have caught some city officials off guard, however for the 230 employees at the Marriott International call centre in St. Thomas, they had an inkling something was up the week before. They had been told a video conference call was scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday, leaving them to fret the weekend away as to what lay ahead. In this COVID-19 world, where the travel and hospitality sectors have been particularly hard hit, an announcement the call centre here and another one in San Antonio, Texas were to be shuttered later this summer really should come as no surprise. Between the travel restrictions still in place and, before that, the ease of booking trips and hotel rooms online, the warning signs were clearly present.
Pleasant surprises have been in short supply the past two months in a world locked in the grip of a coronavirus that introduced us to social distancing, self-isolation, face masks, makeshift home offices and the vulnerability of those housed in long-term care facilities who often died alone with loved ones unable to say goodbye.
So, Friday’s announcement by the Ford government that, beginning Monday, the door to recovery is going to open just a crack is welcoming news
There is a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel.
The day before, there was a prelude to the shape of things to come with the introduction of the province’s Jobs and Recovery Committee which, according to the media release, “will focus on getting businesses up and running and people back to work after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.”
With cramped quarters and no exit doors near the rear of the buses to keep passengers distant from drivers, is it safe to ride St. Thomas Transit in these far-from-normal times? Well, it appears this week much attention is being paid to the safety of passengers and drivers. But what about the situation over the last month when the transit system was operating a regular service while others in the province had shut down or substantially reduced hours. And, larger operators with full-sized transit buses could take the front door out of service and have passengers enter and exit the vehicles through the rear door, well away from drivers. With the city’s fleet of what can only be described as glorified airport parking shuttle buses, the above is not an option.
Let’s pray it never reaches this stage – and to date, there is no indication St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital is about to be overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients – however, the president of OPSEU is urging the province “to look for creative ways to combat the spread of the coronavirus.” Warren ‘Smokey’ Thomas is urging the Doug Ford government to consider opening portions of previously shuttered regional mental health centres including the facility south of St. Thomas and the Rideau Regional Centre in Smiths Falls to ease a potential capacity crisis in the healthcare system. In a media release issued last month, Thomas noted, “They can be used for currently hospitalized alternative care patients or as dedicated COVID-19 centres to relieve pressure on our hospitals. Let’s be proactive. Now is the time for action.”
The city’s much-maligned transit system may very well become a greatly relied upon people mover if council endorses the recommendations of the soon-to-be-released Strategic Transit Plan. The proposed changes would involve route and schedule adjustments, the introduction of demand-responsive transit (DRT), the possibility of larger buses and electric bus technology and a pilot project to explore regional bus service. At Monday’s (Nov. 18) reference committee meeting, Brian Putre of Stantec Consulting and city engineer Justin Lawrence presented an overview of recommendations to members of city council. The plan, which is 95 per cent complete, drew favourable comments from all of council, including the stark observation from Coun. Joan Rymal that “any change is better than what we have now.”
“I can guarantee there will be a hospice in Elgin county . . . during my term.” Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek issued that assurance last December and less than a year later, Deputy Premier Christine Elliott backed that guarantee with a $1.6 million pledge to open an eight-bed residential hospice to serve St. Thomas and Elgin. Friday morning (Sept. 20) Elliott, who is also the province’s health minister, made the announcement at Memory Garden in Pinafore Park and added once the facility opens, the province will provide $840,000 annually toward the operating costs. The annual funding is projected to cover approximately 50 per cent of the hospice operating costs.
In a ceremony held this morning at the main fire hall in St. Thomas, several dozen firefighters, members of the police service and EMS gathered for a 9-11 memorial service and to recognize the efforts of the people “willing to step up and answer the call to action when it is needed.” Hosted by the St. Thomas Professional Firefighters’ Association, the ceremony honoured the more than 400 firefighters and law enforcement officers who died in the World Trade Center and on the ground in New York City. It was also an opportunity for elected officials to pay tribute to the city’s first responders. “Thank you so much for all of the work you do each and every day to keep us safe,” observed Elgin-Middlesex-London MP Karen Vecchio.