COVID-19 response plan tops agenda in Town of La Ronge Council meeting with infections on the rise in Saskatchewan.

The Town of La Ronge, Sask., announced measures to deal with the coronavirus in its council meeting on Tuesday. In person council meetings are on hold until next month.

Four new presumptive cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, were announced today, bringing the total to 20 for the province. And Dr. Allan Woo, president of the Saskatchewan Medical Association, announced that he tested positive for COVID-19 after going to a curling bonspiel in Edmonton.

Gary Vidal, Conservative MP for the northern Saskatchewan riding of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, noted in an interview earlier this week that many northern communities don’t have the same treatment facilities as La Ronge, which could make it a central point for COVID-19 services.

La Ronge’s position as a hub for services in the region presents a unique challenge for Mayor Ron Woytowich and his council.

Woytowich told National Observer in an interview before the council meeting that there are likely to be concerns among some members of the community if it comes to be relied on for COVID-19-related health and quarantine services in northern Saskatchewan.

“La Ronge, being La Ronge, is going to be the drop-off point for a lot of things,” Woytowich said. “So what happens if our families get sick? And all the people that work in the hospital? It’s not like in this community we have a backup. It’s not like out in Saskatoon…”

Council announced that the town has suspended public access to the town office, Mel Hegland Uniplex, the public-works shop and the fire station.

La Ronge Town Office on March 19, 2020. Photograph by Michael Bramadat-Willcock

All fire inspections and re-inspections have been put on hold and town-initiated recreational programming has been called off.

“I would also like to say that, for all those that have been surrounded by fear and anxiety over the last few days and weeks, I see you and you are not alone,” he added.

As well, air carriers and Nav Canada have implemented enhanced COVID-19 screening measures at Barber Field Airport.

According to a Thursday press release, “all other operations such as snow removal, garbage pick-up and fire service will continue as usual for the time being.”

"If we wait until there is a real threat, we might not have time to get it right" said La Ronge council member Jordan McPhail, who attended the council meeting remotely from his home in La Ronge.

“I would also like to say that, for all those that have been surrounded by fear and anxiety over the last few days and weeks, I see you and you are not alone,” he added.

La Ronge has dealt with emergencies in the past. In 2015 a general evacuation of the area went into effect due to wildfires that impacted residents of La Ronge, Air Ronge and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band.

“We all were elected to keep our community safe, to be proactive in the best interest of the community, of which we have learned many great lessons from the 2015 fires that came to our community,” McPhail said. “We must act early and strive to speed rather than perfection.”

"We can and will overcome this, together. Everyone around this table, and around your kitchen table, has a unique strength that we can use in the coming weeks to keep our community strong,” he said.

McPhail put forward a motion including measures to prepare the Mel Hegland Uniplex and curling rink as an off-site assessment location and healthcare facility for COVID-19 to assist the Saskatchewan Health Authority where needed.

He proposed reduced hours for local businesses such as retail and off-sale of alcohol, restaurants and bars. He also urged the town not to enforce utility shut offs until December 31 and to waive interest on amounts owed by businesses or individuals impacted by COVID-19.

"Now all of this may seem like an over reaction to some, but what we learned in 2015 was that if we wait until there is a real threat, we will not have the time to get it right," he said.

McPhail's motion was not supported by the rest of council in its entirety because the measures already adopted were seen as adequate and council can only make decisions within its own jurisdiction.

Acting chief administrative officer Dean Yaremchuk noted that a tri-community emergency operations plan is under review.

Staff are setting up customer or user group contact via email, phone or other non-personal contact instead of in-person meetings.

Employees are being told to stay home if they are unwell and not attend work until they are symptom-free.

La Ronge has directed firefighters to take additional protective measures, when assisting individuals in emergency situations.

Residents and businesses owners are being asked to conduct business with the town via email or phone and make payments to the Town via online banking or e-transfers.

Signage being placed at public buildings will remind residents to follow proper hand-washing procedures. And the town office, Mel Hegland Uniplex and curling arenas have been sanitized.

The Town of La Ronge will release COVID-19 updates every Thursday. Everyone is being asked to follow Saskatchewan Health directives and to visit their self-assessment website.

The neighbouring village of Air Ronge has limited in person communication to phone and email. Lac La Ronge regional fill station accounts are accessible to clients by following instructions on the door.