Norman Wells has houses for self-isolating residents, but no permission to use them

Mayor Frank Pope says the town got the lease to five houses from Imperial Oil last spring but the territorial public health officials won't allow the town to use them for people to self-isolate after travel.

Mayor Frank Pope says the town got the lease to the houses from Imperial Oil last spring

Mayor Frank Pope of Norman Wells, N.W.T., says the town has leased five, three-bedroom houses from Imperial Oil since the spring in which residents could self-isolate, but the territorial government hasn't given the town permission to use them. (Radio Canada)

The mayor of Norman Wells, N.W.T., says that for months, he's held the lease to five empty houses in which town residents could isolate after travel, but the territorial government hasn't given him permission to use them. 

"There's no cost to the town to use these units," said Frank Pope. "We are willing to meet aircraft bringing people in ... we're willing to look after their needs for groceries, or for whatever they need."

Despite having furniture for the houses, and staff trained in COVID-19 safety protocols, said Pope, "we're still not making any progress with the government to use these units."

Northwest Territories residents who travel outside the territory must isolate for 14 days upon their return in either Yellowknife, Fort Smith, Hay River or Inuvik. On Jan. 5, the territorial government stopped paying the hotel bills for people who travel for reasons it deems non-essential.

The government will still pay the hotel costs for medical travellers, returning N.W.T. students who are studying outside the territory, and others in "exceptional" circumstances.

Policy change

This policy change may be no big deal to people who live in one of the four larger communities and can isolate at home, but everyone else could face a hefty self-isolation bill. 

Pope said Norman Wells's five, three-bedroom houses belong to Imperial Oil. He said the town got the lease to them at the start of the pandemic, and renewed it in December for another six months. 

Pope said the town likely wouldn't charge residents to stay in the houses. Imperial Oil is covering utilities, he said, so isolators would just have to pay for food and other supplies.

The oil and gas company is "trying to help us out to meet some of our needs," said Pope.

Sandy and Doug Whiteman of Norman Wells say they got special permission from the territorial government to isolate at home if Doug must go south for cancer treatment. (Submitted by Sandy Whiteman)

Whether their travel is essential or not, some residents just want to be able to isolate in their home community, said Pope.

"We have a couple of families I'm aware of where they have had to isolate every time they go for treatment for medical issues down in Edmonton. Every time they come back, it's two weeks in Yellowknife," he said.

"They're getting sick of that and they're sick enough at the best of times. We're trying to help them to overcome that problem as well."

However, in an email from government spokesperson Mike Westwick to CBC News, the territory says there has been a number of discussions with Mayor Pope and officials from Norman Wells on self-isolation for residents, but at this time, it isn't going to be expanding the list of hub communities.

"While the discussion about expanding self-isolation location options was ongoing over the fall, the situation in Canada has since changed considerably — and for the worse," the email reads in part.

"The Public Health Orders currently define the self-isolation hubs as Fort Smith, Yellowknife, Hay River, and Inuvik. Until that shifts, establishing isolation centres in another community would not be on the table."

The territory also says it is "absolutely open" to keep discussing and re-evaluating in the future.

'So much more comfortable at home'

Norman Wells couple Doug and Sandy Whiteman can sympathize with those having to isolate after medical travel. 

Doug was diagnosed with cancer more than a year ago and may soon have to travel to Edmonton for treatment. 

"Radiation is probably going to irritate the hell out of me, and I can imagine sitting in a hotel room in Yellowknife for two weeks trying to get through this when I'd be so much more comfortable at home," he said.

Sandy, who has isolated in Yellowknife hotels on two separate occasions, said the stays can be difficult, especially when you're travelling alone.

She wants residents to know they have options.

The Whitemans said they've gotten special approval from the territorial government to isolate at home in Norman Wells.

People are just more at home in a home atmosphere rather than a hotel room.- Doug Whiteman, Norman Wells resident

But Doug said surely there are others in the Sahtu region in a similar situation to his who can't isolate at home. He said for them, isolating in a house in Norman Wells, even if it's not their own, is likely preferable to a hotel room in Yellowknife.

"People are just more at home in a home atmosphere rather than a hotel room," he said.

Lise Dolan, a 30-year resident of Norman Wells, said she's of two minds about allowing isolation in town.

She sees how it could be good for people who have to travel for medical reasons, but she's also worried about the potential for a local COVID-19 outbreak.

"Arviat and Whale Cove are prime examples of what could happen," she said, citing two Nunavut communities that saw a combined 245 COVID-19 cases in less than two months. 

"I have an 88-year-old mother living with me, so that makes me even more concerned." 

CBC asked Paulie Chinna, the minister of Municipal and Community Affairs and the Sahtu MLA, whether she'd advocate for converting the Imperial Oil houses into isolation units. She said the decision is up to the chief public health officer.