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BREAKING NEWS: Orillia on brink of declaring a state of emergency

Fire Chief Brent Thomas says when 'looked at through the lens of what’s best for citizens of this community, sooner than later' is preferred
brent thomas march 20
Fire Chief Brent Thomas provided an overview about what a state of emergency declaration would mean at Friday's emergency city council meeting.

The City of Orillia appears poised to declare a state of emergency.

At an emergency meeting of council this afternoon, a majority of city councillors concurred with the idea. But it’s not official until Mayor Steve Clarke, as the head of council, officially makes the declaration.

While Clarke has not done that, he said he expects things to get worse before they get better.

“Make no mistake, it’s going to get worse,” said Clarke, who noted the province’s medical officer of health has said the next two to four weeks “are absolutely critical” in the fight to control the pandemic.

Fire Chief Brent Thomas gave council an overview of what it would mean to declare an emergency and fielded questions about the process and its potential impact.

Thomas heads up the city’s emergency control group, which is in place to deal with emergency situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.

While he didn’t make a formal recommendation, he said “I am comfortable with a move towards a declaration of an emergency at this point.”

He said the move would potentially trigger some financial aid but, perhaps more importantly, allow the city to enforce social distancing and other measures that might help slow the spread of the virus.

“I do tend to agree the sooner we can make this happen (based on the science) and looked at through the lens of what’s best for citizens of this community, sooner than later should be highest on the decision scale,” said Thomas.

Thomas said there is an ability to take a stepped approach. 

“I’m not saying we need to go to the highest level of enforcement” right away, “but it does give us the ability to ‘require’ people to do certain things instead of saying ‘please’ and if they are not compliant, (we could) go to the next step.”

He noted  enforcement would be another issue, but said making such a declaration might serve as a wakeup call to those who are not taking the pandemic seriously.

Coun. Jay Fallis said the city needs to fast-track its strategy.

“We need to accelerate to 110 percent and use all of the powers available to ensure this city is shut down,” said Fallis. “I think we need to look at ways to restrict the number of people entering all facilities, parks, public spaces and parking lots.”

Coun. Ralph Cipolla said he supported the state of emergency declaration, noting that 621 people died in Italy over the last 24 hours. 

“I think we’re kidding ourselves” that this will be a short-term issue, said Cipolla. “This is more serious than we anticipate.”

Thomas said many people just aren’t getting the message.

“I’m very proud of members of the community that are taking appropriate action, but I see some that are not,” said Thomas, who stressed that from what he’s read and studied, “being proactive is better. (This) gives us the ability to up the ante, so to speak.”

Coun. Ted Emond said he would support the declaration for that reason.

“If a declaration of a state of emergency is a step toward getting their attention, I am fully in favour of that,” said Emond.

David Campbell said in his reading of the provincial form used to declare an emergency, “many of those boxes are already ticked” and the rest seem imminent.

“One thing a declaration would do would give decision making speed which City Hall is not known for,” said Campbell. “It would allow decisions to be made very quickly and we need to be able to respond quickly.”

Coun. Rob Kloostra also agreed.

“We have to move sooner than later (and) knowledge impacts behaviour,” said Kloostra, noting many people aren’t staying at home. “This is the direction we need to move forward in.”

Earlier today, it was learned that the city has a  second confirmed COVID-19 case. Across the province, more than 300 people have tested positive for the coronavirus. Two people - including one in Barrie - have died in Ontario.

Friday’s two-hour emergency meeting was closed to the public as part of a strategy to abide by social distancing guidelines put in place by the province, which declared a province-wide state of emergency on Tuesday.

Councillors Jay Fallis, Rob Kloostra, Tim Lauer and Pat Hehn participated remotely in Friday's meeeting along with city CAO Gayle Jackson. 

Councillors Ralph Cipolla, Mason Ainsworth, Ted Emond and David Campbell attended the meeting at the Orillia City Centre in person along with the mayor, Thomas and a few other senior staffers.

The meeting was live-streamed on Rogers TV

City council also approved a number of relief measures for citizens and property owners. Watch for a story on that later tonight.