By Mike Williscraft
At a time when all government officials know communications efforts must be maximized, Niagara Region continues to suffer a major disconnect between elected officials and the Department of Health.
This became apparent during a lengthy debate at a special meeting of regional council on Wednesday, Nov. 18. The meeting was called to review acting medical officer of health, Dr. Mustafa Hirji’s implementation of heightened COVID-19 restrictions for the restaurant and bar sector under Section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act.
Uniformly, the accommodation and food service industries rose up, led by Mark Wood of 40 Public House in Grimsby, to voice its serious concern that the measures, while well-meaning, were off-base and potentially lethal to some of the 33,000 jobs in the industry.
Aside from the two sides of that debate, it was clear through repeated comment from those around the table, little or no communication between Hirji and elected officials had been done.
While Hirji does have the ability to unilaterally make a decision on implementing a Section 22 order – which requires extensive personal information for each person entering an establishment, no more than four at any table and all must be from the same household with an exception for a care provider – but being left in the dark did not sit well with councillors.
Niagara Falls Reg. Coun. Pat Chiocchio, who sits as co-chair of the health committee, said the committee met the day before Hirji implemented the measures, yet there was no mention of the possibilty at his committee meeting.
“I had no idea until the announcement was made. I don’t feel we are being informed enough,” said Chiocchio.
This sentiment was echoed by nearly all who spoke to the issue.
Hirji admitted he could have done a better job of communication, adding, “Perhaps the consultation was not sufficient” in reference to feedback sought from the business community.
Wood made many points in presentation, citing concerns restricting restaurants could actually prove to boost COVID rates by pushing people to house parties and dinners with little or no social distancing.
This was echoed by Port Colborne Reg. Coun. Barb Butters.
Butters read a letter from a resident citing a host of issues present in big box stores, asking Hirji why such retailers are left with little restrictions, while restaurants face stringent measures.
Hirji said such stores have “no close social interaction which puts you at high risk.”
Many councillors noted the biggest challenge is to get the 20-40 year old demographic to adhere to social distancing measures.
Grimsby Mayor Jeff Jordan said restaurants have done well implementing safety measures, but they are being asked to pay a price for social interaction, not directly tied to going out for dinner.
Council passed a motion requesting Hirji reconsider the Section 22 measures. Hirji provided no further comment.
Repeated attempts to confirm if Hirji would reconsider his actions, resulted in, “Public Health is committed to continuously re-assessing the need for the order and its provisions as new information arises, including evidence of whether the order is working as intended.”
Hirji’s order will remain in place until Jan. 1, 2021.