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Things N.W.T. MLAs asked officials: From checkstop moving to Alberta border to patio requests

MLAs got their chance to question the N.W.T. government Wednesday on their plans to reopen the territory, leading to new information and clarification on businesses reopening and border controls.

MLAs questioned government on COVID-19 reopening plan revealed Tuesday

A file photo of someone holding beer. An MLA asked about dine-in restaurants opening patio service, and Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola said the government is 'absolutely' open to the idea. (CBC News)

MLAs got their chance to question the N.W.T. government Wednesday on its plan to reopen the territory, leading to new information and clarification about border controls and opening up businesses.

On Tuesday, the territorial government revealed their "Emerging Wisely Plan," detailing stages and triggers that could relax COVID-19 restrictions. The first phase of reopening could begin as soon as Friday. 

A day after the plan was released, the standing committee on accountability and oversight, which includes all MLAs in the territory not in cabinet, held a public briefing.

During the question period, several MLAs asked for details around border security, noting that the territory's southern border check is currently located in Enterprise, N.W.T., rather than on the Alberta border. Strong border controls are emphasized in the plan as one of the keys to reopening.

"The concern being the check stop wasn't at the N.W.T./Alberta border, where it should have been at the outset, but rather it was set up at Enterprise, for convenience's sake," said Deh Cho MLA Ron Bonnetrouge.

"We are still seeing out of province licence plates coming through our community. I'm not sure what the strong border restrictions, what they entail."

In response, Health Minister Diane Thom said the government plans to move the checkpoint to the physical border Thursday.

Chief Public Health Officer Kami Kandola added later that strict border controls are a "delicate balance."

An officer conducts a roadside check just outside of Enterprise, N.W.T. on Highway 1. The Highway 1 border check will move to the N.W.T. border Thursday, MLAs heard during a standing committee meeting. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

"Our ability to relax [internal controls] is that there appears to be very little risk in N.W.T. with our current arrangement," she said. "Once we start loosening things up ... we'd have to start tightening our internal restrictions."

In a statement to CBC News, territorial spokesperson Conrad Baetz said the government took into account how locals were still travelling to the Alexandra Falls day use site, that is located just a few kilometres outside of the Enterprise checkpoint boundaries. 

"Moving the check station to the actual border will allow for use of the day use area by N.W.T. residents without them being outside of the check station at the border," the statement reads.

Previously, residents had to provide identification and other personal information like their name, licence plate number and phone number when crossing the checkpoint to go to Alexandra Falls. 

Restaurants should submit outdoor patio requests

Kandola also noted that businesses and organizations granted the green light to reopen in later phases of the government's plan could potentially open earlier than that, if they were able to put together a plan that mitigated risks.

Responding to a question from Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson about dine-in restaurants opening patio service, Kandola said the government is "absolutely" open to creative solutions.

This proposal of an outdoor patio is an excellent initiative.- Dr. Kami Kandola, Chief public health officer

"If people can provide those creative solutions, a business could be moved from phase two to phase one," she said.

Speaking to reporters by teleconference after the briefing, Kandola said restaurants that want to offer patio service should submit a request to the government.

"This proposal of an outdoor patio is an excellent initiative put forward by the restaurants to be able to meet a risk reduction by having services placed outside," she said.

"However, we still need to review their plan."

Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland questioned government officials on the timing to reopen Aurora College. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland asked a similar question regarding Aurora College students, wondering why they are included in phase three of the plan.

"Indoor gatherings is a high-risk scenario," Kandola replied. "Dorms are also a high-risk scenario in terms of crowding. So when we look at recommendations ... specific to colleges and universities, it's definitely at a higher risk. The recommendations are at a level they can be mitigated to.

"Aurora College, if they can come up with a plan to mitigate risk ... we're open to listening to it."

School boards to decide whether to reopen

MLAs also questioned the government on its decision to allow schools to reopen during phase one, noting that many school boards were caught off-guard by the announcement. 

Kandola clarified that the government's inclusion of schools is not a directive, and that individual school boards would have to make their own decisions. However, she stated that the inclusion allows for schools to offer services beyond classes, such as allowing at-risk children a safe place to go.

She also said that current conditions provide an ideal time for schools to test their mitigation practices before the new school year begins in the fall.

"What better time to open a school and practice mitigation measures than now [when we] are kind of in a bubble situation? We have no spread, good containment," she said. 

"This is an ideal time. In fall, when we anticipate the return to indoor [gatherings] ... it's going to put a lot more pressure on schools."

Kandola said the government is currently reviewing the revised public health orders with legal staff, which would allow the territory to begin phase one of its reopening. If there are no further setbacks, she expects them to be put in place by late this week or early next week. 

With files from Anna Desmarais

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