BANFF – The Town of Banff is preparing a support system to help residents who have been laid off due to business closures throughout the resort town in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The municipality declared a local state of emergency Tuesday (March 17) in a bid to combat the spread of the virus that has now affected 119 people in Alberta, and Parks Canada is shutting down all visitor services in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks.
Mayor Karen Sorensen said Banff’s emergency coordination centre is working on the plan for residents who have lost jobs.
“This is a dire situation for so many people in Banff who are out of work and uncertain about housing, food and their future,” she said.
“Our federal and provincial counterparts assure us that help is coming in the form of financial support and services. But there may be a gap between people finding out they don’t have a job, and when the support comes through. Banff and local businesses are here to help.”
A state of local emergency gives the municipality authority to impose restrictions on businesses and organizations within Town limits, but not outside Town boundaries in the surrounding national park.
Banff night clubs were ordered to close their dance floors until further notice, while all gatherings in businesses and events are to be limited to less than 50 people, including employees and customers.
Sorensen said the community of Banff has faced challenges before, such as SARS and H1N1, floods and wildfire threats, but nothing like this.
“This is completely uncharted territory for us as a municipality, for Canada, for the world,” she said, noting these decisions have not been taken lightly, but are critical to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
“In terms of being a tourism destination, we have not faced anything like this before.”
Effective Thursday (March 19), Parks Canada announced it would temporarily suspend all visitor services in all national parks, historic sites and marine conservation until further notice.
In Banff, that includes the Cave and Basin, Upper Hot Springs and visitor centres, among others.
“What that means for our parks is that pretty much anything with a door will be closed,” said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a press conference Tuesday.
The Town of Banff is imposing restrictions on properties to limit the capacity to 50 per cent of their fire load occupancy, up to 50 people.
This restriction is enacted to ensure all organizations are are able to implement social distancing as advised by Alberta Health, with two-metre distance between people, such as diners.
This restriction does not include grocery stores, transit, retail, pharmacies and health facilities at this time.
Forcing closures of businesses is not completely off the table in the future, however.
“But the action we’ve taken is logical and appropriate – and is supported by all of council,” said Sorensen.
“Certainly any business can make a personal decision to shut doors and that’s up to individuals.”
The mayor said the municipality has been in close contact with many establishments who agree that this is the right choice to make, noting safety of people in the community is the top priority.
“We are aware that the restrictions on businesses will result in some closures. Other restaurants may offer take-out or delivery services only,” said the mayor.
“While it can seem extreme to have places we love close, this is in line with national directions on the need for extreme measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.”
Leslie Bruce, president and CEO of Banff and Lake Louise Tourism (BLLT), said these are difficult times.
“We recognize there is tension here, as people struggle with decision-making and the situation we are all in,” she said.
Bruce said BLLT’s main priority right now is to help ensure the safety of the community.
She said it’s important to work together to "flatten the curve" to stem the spread of COVID-19 in order for the health care systems to be able to respond.
“Tourism is a people business – and that’s exactly what we’re focused on,” she said.
“We are following guidelines and recommendations made by the Public Health Agency of Canada and Alberta Health Services (AHS) and encouraging our members to do the same.”
Bruce said the community is working hard to manage social distancing practices.
“We know this pandemic is impacting our community and businesses. Businesses are holding to the standards identified by Alberta Health Services,” she said.
“We are focused on providing the support our members are seeking. This will include advocating for our members to receive financial relief and assistance as needed.”
Peter Poole, a prominent Banff businessman and town councillor, has been preparing for COVID-19 for the past six weeks in an attempt to be a step ahead to “flatten the curve.”
Poole had taken measures similar to Calgary by reducing seating to increase social distancing at the Juniper, which falls outside Town's boundaries.
At his downtown bakery, Wild Flour, he had already removed half of the seating and encouraged take-out.
“Guests still need food and shelter,” Poole said.
“Plus, for employees returning from travelling outside Canada, we are readying spaces so they can self-isolate.”
The Town of Banff continues to work with local agencies and organizations to communicate with businesses in the community and to compile information about supports for employees that are being made available.
Sorensen said Banff is a community that looks after its family of workers.
“We have been advocating to the province and the federal government on benefits for workers and support for businesses,” she said.
“We have struck a local task force with Banff and Lake Louise Tourism and the Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association to compile all information on emergency supports being announced by the governments of Canada and Alberta over the next few days.”
In addition to measures taken by the Town of Banff, Parks Canada will limit its activities to basic critical operations and many staff will work from home.
Visitor facilities will be closed temporarily, including washrooms and day-use facilities. Some conservation activities will also be temporarily suspended, including projects with external researchers.
While visitor services are temporarily suspended, Parks Canada will continue to deliver a number of critical services, including highway management and snow removal, fire response, as well as avalanche forecasting and control, among others.
“Visitors may use front country and backcountry areas as well as accessible green spaces,” stated a Parks news release.
“Search and rescue services may be limited. Visitors should exercise additional caution at this time and avoid activities with safety risks.”
There are a number of tourism businesses and operations within Parks Canada's federal jurisdiction, such as ski hills in Banff National Park as well as commercial accommodations. Sunshine Village, Mount Norquay and Lake Lousie ski resorts have all announced closures.
“These operators are valued partners and provide important services to visitors,” stated the release.
“They may continue to operate and clients should check with them before visiting to ensure that there has been no change to their services.”
In addition, Parks Canada will cease taking new reservations until April 30, 2020.
“All existing reservations for this period will be refunded in full,” according to Parks Canada.
“In addition, the agency is currently developing an approach to honour passes, in light of travel restrictions and closures related to COVID-19. Details will be communicated in due course.”
Jonathan Wilkinson, the federal minister of Environment and Climate Change responsible for Parks Canada, said the government’s top priority is the health and safety of Canadians at this critical time.
“We are doing everything we can to contain the novel coronavirus and reduce the burden on our health care system,” he said.
“We all look forward to resuming normal operations at Parks Canada places, but for now we must follow the advice of public health experts and work together to limit the spread of COVID-19.”
A complete list of Parks Canada places that are closed and the parameters of these closures will be available on the Parks Canada website soon. Please visit pc.gc.ca regularly for updates.
Meanwhile, the Town is asking employers to move toward remote-working wherever possible.
Silvio Adamo, the Town’s fire chief and director of emergency operations, said all municipal services are still functioning.
“Our top priority is maintaining essential services and they are managing well,” he said.
“Water, sewer and power will keep running and streets and waste services are still serving our community.”
If people have an emergency, calling 911 will bring help from fire, police and ambulance.
The Town is also still open for business for online services and payments in Town Hall.
“There is no need to panic or worry that you won’t receive essential Town services,” said Adamo.
Mayor Sorensen said that dealing with emergency situations in the past, such as wildfires in the national park, has put Banff in a solid position to deal with this pandemic.
“I get emotional talking about this; it’s always so inspiring to me to see our own emergency preparedness within the Town, but also this community,” she said.
Fenlands recreation centre and 101 Bear Street, which includes the seniors centre and the Banff Public Library, remain closed until further notice to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Council and committee meetings will continue, but the public is banned from council chambers and must watch the proceedings through the Town’s online live streaming.
All Town-organized programs, courses, and events that gather members of the public and were scheduled to run over the next 60 days are cancelled.