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N.W.T. premier offers details on state of emergency, camping, and COVID-19 'bubbles'

N.W.T.'s premier said Wednesday morning that there are no imminent plans to remove the territory's state of emergency, and that it may stay in place as public health orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic are relaxed in the coming weeks. 

Caroline Cochrane was live on CBC's The Trailbreaker Wednesday for a wide-ranging interview

N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane says that the territory's state of emergency may be needed as restrictions related to the emergency public health order are relaxed in the coming weeks. (Walter Strong/CBC)

N.W.T.'s premier said Wednesday morning that there are no imminent plans to remove the territory's state of emergency, and that it may stay in place as public health orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic are relaxed in the coming weeks. 

Caroline Cochrane made the comments in a wide-ranging interview with The Trailbreaker's Loren McGinnis on CBC radio, where she also discussed her plans for economic recovery, parks and campgrounds, and past N.W.T. residents returning to the territory amidst border closures.

"The state of emergency has been enacted to support the measures of the chief public health officer," said Cochrane, responding to a question about when residents may expect to see it relaxed.

The state of emergency declaration, enacted March 24 and extended every two weeks, allows the territorial government the ability to exercise extraordinary powers during a time of crisis, including acquiring private property, requiring qualified people to provide aid, and to fix prices on goods. 

Cochrane would not provide a timeline to ending the declaration, but said that she is concerned about potential fallout from the relaxing of emergency public health orders — including things like grocery stores closing in small communities or price gouging.

"The whole priority is to support the chief public health officer, but as she loosens her orders ... we might have to use [the state of emergency] again," she said.

Cochrane reiterated during the interview that N.W.T.'s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola is expected to release a plan on how she will ease pandemic-related social restrictions — enacted under an emergency public health order — "either late this week or early next week."

Dr. Kami Kandola, chief public health officer of the N.W.T., has said she plans to release a plan for the lessening of restrictions in the territory by the end of the week. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

That plan, Cochrane said, will include details on the eventual reopening of territorial parks and campgrounds, and said Kandola is "well aware" of the public want for camping as the spring melt continues.

"It's on our radar," she said. "We will open them up when the time is right."

The idea of "bubbles" — or household links — is also something Kandola is looking at, Cochrane said. The idea has been rolled out in southern provinces like Newfoundland as they begin to lessen restrictions.

The trigger for releasing some of these restrictions may be once the government can confirm that the latest set of border restrictions, announced April 28, have been enacted without any community spread in the territory.

"There's an incubation period," Cochrane said. "So once we get through that, hopefully, we will see a lessening of restrictions."

Businesses should 'think outside the box'

In regards to the territory's economic situation, Cochrane didn't mince words — for some businesses, tough times are ahead.

"Businesses that rely on large congregations, they're going to suffer," she said. "So it's a matter of trying to think outside the box.

Cochrane said that the territorial government is working with three advisory groups — one each representing businesses, Indigenous governments, and the social sector — as they prepare their recovery plan. However, she offered little details beyond planning to lobby the federal government. 

"What I've been asking now with the federal government is flexibility. The majority of small businesses are struggling."

She said that she is currently lobbying for short-term relief for these businesses. After she's able to secure that, she said, her focus will turn to "lobbying on long-term efforts."

Asked if she had any economic projections for the impacts of COVID-19, Cochrane said "it would be inappropriate for me to put a number out there at this time."

"What I can say to the small business owner that's up against it, is that my heart's with you. I hear your struggles," she said.

On Monday morning, the territory's Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment separately announced that it was contributing $86,000 to the territory's Community Futures Development Corporations, allowing them to defer loan payments for their clients.

Exemption to rejoin your family in N.W.T.

Cochrane was also asked about the recent case of a Gwich'in man who was forced to leave the territory after attempting to move back to rejoin his family.

Though she said she couldn't comment on individual cases, Cochrane said that anyone looking to rejoin their family in the territory should be filing for an exemption to the territory's border restrictions.

"If there's a compelling reason, the chief public health officer, in my opinion, has been lenient," she said, noting that she knew of at least one case where a family exemption was granted. "But if we let everyone in, we're at higher risk."

Cochrane noted that she herself has a large family, and has had to say no to people trying to return to the territory.

"I've said I don't think it's a good idea. So it's about trying to protect us."

Written by Garrett Hinchey, based on an interview by Loren McGinnis

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