New Brunswick

Toughing it out: Small communities take on COVID-19 challenges

The spread of the COVID-19 virus throughout New Brunswick can be scary.

Mayors of Plaster Rock, McAdam discuss hurdles facing their villages

McAdam Mayor Ken Stannix says seniors' issues top the challenges his community is facing during the COVID-19 crisis. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

The spread of the COVID-19 virus throughout New Brunswick can be scary. 

But for small, rural villages made up primarily of older people, the possibility of the pandemic coming to town is cause for greater worry, according to some mayors. 

"The people here are really concerned," said Alexis Fenner, mayor of Plaster Rock. "They're taking the rules that came out with the state of emergency extremely seriously and obeying the rules." 

Fenner said senior citizens make up the majority of her village's population. And because they're the most vulnerable to the effects of the novel coronavirus, everyday activities have become difficult. 

Plaster Rock Mayor Alexis Fenner says people are very concerned about COVID-19 in the community, especially given its aging population. (Ed Hunter, CBC)

"The biggest challenge at the moment is the inability of the elderly to have any semblance of a normal life," said Fenner. 

Banking for seniors in Plaster Rock has become a big issue, according to Fenner. She said most don't use online banking, so trips to the local bank are necessary.

The mayor of Plaster Rock says shut-in seniors are the most at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Shane Fowler/CBC News)

And for those who live independently but don't own or drive a vehicle, Fenner said they are already relying on friends and family who live nearby for delivery of things like groceries. Banking and doctor appointments remain a bigger challenge. 

Fenner said elsewhere in the community, things have been running smoothly so far. She noted there had been some safety grievances from workers worried about catching and spreading the virus at the village's largest employer, the Twin Rivers Lumber Mill.

But, she said those fears appear to have been addressed and the mill continues to operate. 

Fenner is glad to see traffic throughout the community has been drastically reduced. 

Alexis Fenner, mayor of Plaster Rock, says some staff were concerned about safety conditions at the village's largest employer, the Twin Rivers Lumber Mill. She says those concerns appear to have been addressed and people continue to work. (Shane Fowler/CBC News)

"I'm pleased to say, although I'm always screaming for more people to come to Plaster Rock, I'm glad at the moment nobody is," said Fenner. 

Same story south 

Two hundred kilometres south, the story is nearly identical in another rural village. 

McAdam also has a large senior population in an isolated, rural area. 

So, village staff have turned the municipal office into a call centre of sorts to meet the needs of seniors. 

"We've instituted a policy here where if a senior needs something, they can call the main office of the village and we'll have somebody there answering phones," said Mayor Ken Stannix. "So, if they need a pickup on medicines or groceries, we're able to assist them with that." 

Stannix also said that since the Canada–U.S. border has been closed to non-essential travel, the amount of traffic in the community has plummeted.

Stannix said McAdam residents would normally cross the border for cheaper gas and milk, while those in Vanceboro, Maine, would come over to the only grocery store between the two communities. Diesel fuel is not available in Vanceboro as well.

He says while people on both sides are coming to terms with the closed border, the reduced traffic does limit the avenues for the virus to get into the village. 

"Most people are just staying at home," said Stannix. 

Like Plaster Rock, McAdam also has an aging population. The village is taking precautions to protect them during the pandemic. (Shane Fowler/CBC News)

Stannix said the community's only bank had to shut down because staff members had to self-isolate after returning from travelling. That created temporary problems for seniors in the village, but he said staff have since returned, alleviating those worries. 

Boom delayed 

McAdam made headlines last year for offering housing lots for a dollar each in order to entice newcomers and boost the village's population. 

But in the wake of COVID-19, he doubts that boost will be happening in 2020. 

"People were anticipating they were going to start building those homes this summer," said Stannix. "There were 16 houses we were expecting to be put up this summer. I suspect that the majority of those will be delayed by at least a year." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shane Fowler

Reporter

Shane Fowler has been a CBC journalist based in Fredericton since 2013.

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