On Thursday night, Mayor Cam Guthrie called a state of emergency in the City of Guelph. If you’re wondering what exactly that means for life here in the Royal City, you’re not alone. The mayor talked to Guelph Politico on Friday about what the state of emergency means for Guelph, what City Hall is doing to respond to the crisis, and his most important request to all Guelph residents right now.
The following interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
In declaring a state of emergency, what can you do today in terms of powers and abilities that you didn’t have yesterday?
The Act is not specific in regards to what I can or cannot do. It allows me to take actions or give directions for the health and safety of the city, though it does state “applicable within law.” I just want to be really firm about this, because I’m not thinking right now about any actions or directions that need to be taken, and the reason why is because our emergency response group – the staff at City Hall, the executive team, the CAO, our public health officer, and others – are handling this very, very well. The actions and directions that they have taken to date are exactly what I would have suggested anyway. At this time, the state of emergency I declared last night is more about making sure that a message of seriousness is being sent to citizens and businesses across the city.
There’s been a lot of pressure on you to make this leap, so would you say that this is a kind of psychological measure, as well an actual measure that gives you certain powers as well?
Yes, and again, it’s not about actions or directions, it’s about sending a very strong message that this is very serious. When I found out from the medical officer of health yesterday about the outbreak in the ward affecting the frontline health workers at the General Hospital, I called other healthcare providers to ask them how things were going. I would say people were taking this more seriously last week, and I had a feeling yesterday – from myself, and from those I was speaking to – that people in the community were starting to doubt that seriousness. So that was another reason why I decided to declare.
So there’s no further actions immediately planned in terms of enhancing what’s already been done, it’s still a matter of hour-by-hour that decisions are being made?
Yes. I started my speech last night by saying that things are changing every hour, and there have been a couple of times over the last week-and-a-half where I was actually thinking about declaring an emergency because I wanted some action to be taken, but then the team overseeing the operations and the health and safety of the City started putting those directives in place. So last night was not so much about action as it was about sending a message.
Can you talk a bit about the mechanism by which you get to declare the state of emergency, and does this have to be ratified at all by by council?
The sole discretion on whether or not to declare an emergency rests only with the head of council.
[Editor’s Note: It’s section 4 of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, which says, “The head of council of a municipality may declare that an emergency exists in the municipality or in any part thereof and may take such action and make orders as he or she considers necessary and are not contrary to law to implement the emergency plan of the municipality and to protect property and the health, safety and welfare of the inhabitants of the emergency area.”]
We had that emergency council meeting earlier this week, so under what circumstances wold you have to bring council together again via tele-presence? How much of the the normal functioning of council can be done in the coming weeks?
As of right now, and I going to stress again that things are changing every hour, the planned April meetings of council have been cancelled. Things may change, but as of now they’re all cancelled between today and the end of April. We’ll have emergency meetings if things need to come to council in a more urgent manner, and some of that may be the regular business of council like contractual agreements, or timelines with upper levels of government that might need to be completed. Hopefully, we might be able to go back to what I would call the regular type of schedule in May, June, and July. August is a month where we have no council meetings every year, and we might have to look at changing that, or maybe we’ll have busier agendas in the short term to catch up on those issues. These are all the things that that myself, the clerk and the executive team are thinking about at this time.
In terms of what you’re dealing with right now, what kind of proactive measures are you looking to take, or are you just kind of reactive right now?
I would say it’s 75 per cent reactive from other levels of government, and then 25 per cent is more proactive right now. I’m proactively working on connecting with the business community for the sake of our economy locally, and I have meetings set up about that starting next week . We’re also working on making sure that the homeless and most vulnerable in our community are being taken care of during this time.
I’m sure you are aware of the non-essential business in north end that was opened. The police issued a summons, but how much power does the City have to enforce these summons, and take actions beyond just telling people to stay home?
I just got off the phone with [Guelph Police] Chief Colby about half an hour ago, and I asked him if he would consider sending out a media release or a Q&A for the community to make sure they understand the role that police play during this time where people may be looking for some enforcement. I think that the role of the police doesn’t always have to jump to enforcement, and they can also try to help with compliance, and take on more of an educational role too. Further to that, I am hearing from the Attorney General for the province that there may be proposed changes to give more authority to our municipal bylaw officers to do three things: educate, inform and potentially fine people that are not adhering to the rules.
Even under this declared state of emergency, the Act is very clear that the mayor does not have any authority to close down any private business or service. It’s honestly so important right now that people understand that the essential business list is a provincial jurisdiction, and that no power or authority rests with the mayor to go around and close businesses. Again, that’s one of the reasons why I declared the state of emergency last night. It was to send the message, and make it really clear, that you have to adhere to the rules that we have right now, especially around the closures of businesses that are not essential.
Your message on Twitter last night was pretty clear, but in the light of day, and with people having had 12 hours to process it, what’s your message today as people are coming to terms with the seriousness of the state of emergency?
I think the number one question that I’ve received today is “Can I go outside for a walk?” When people hear the words “state of emergency,” they naturally think, “I guess I’m locked down, and I can’t go anywhere,” but that’s not the message that I was trying to get out yesterday. The message is about the seriousness of playing by the rules, and they’re very, very simple: physical distancing, self-isolation if you’re coming back from out-of-country, and close your business down if you’re deemed non-essential. Those are not hard to adhere to. If Guelph is going to be a city that is helping to slow this virus down, then we need to pull together. A passing grade here isn’t 51 per cent compliance, it’s 100 per cent compliance. That’s what’s going to help our community get over this issue.