'Beyond confusing': Inconsistent N.W.T. taxi safety measures point to heavy burden on business

The chief public health officer and the WSCC have both recommended plastic barriers between cab drivers and passengers. Don’t mistake that for a rule. 

'Is this mandatory? Or is it required? I don't know,' says Fort Simpson, N.W.T., taxi driver

Masks are mandatory inside Walmart, but not in the taxis parked outside. The NWT Chamber of Commerce says the onus is being put on businesses to manage their COVID-19 protocols. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Ron Antoine thought he was following COVID-19 safety protocols when he rigged up a plastic barrier between the front and back seats of the cab he runs in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. 

Then he came to Yellowknife and found that none of the taxis he saw had done the same. 

"Is this mandatory? Or is it required? I don't know," Antoine said in a call to CBC North's bi-weekly phone-in show with Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's chief public health officer. 

Antoine is not the only person to notice inconsistencies in rules established to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

"I know of two restaurants, right across the street from one another, and they have two totally different rules going on right now," said Renée Comeau, executive director of the NWT Chamber of Commerce.

"Pretty much any hospitality business that you walk into in the N.W.T., the rules are completely different from one another, including capacity. Menus, masks, gloves, everything." 

Comeau says the onus is being put on businesses to establish safety protocols.

"It's a little unfair." 

Ron Antoine rigged up a plastic barrier between the front and back seats of the cab he runs in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. (Submitted by Ron Antoine)

From 'requirements' to 'suggestions'

In response to Antoine's question, Kandola referred to the territory's Emerging Wisely re-opening plan.

"There are requirements on cleaning the taxis and for the taxi drivers, if they can't physically distance, to be wearing masks or to have protective barriers, even if it's putting up a plastic sheet with duct tape between the front and the back," she said. 

N.W.T. government spokesperson Mike Westwick later clarified in an email that all of the above are "possible mitigation measures."

"There are many other ways to mitigate risk, like wearing non-medical masks. All should have hand sanitation supplies available. We sincerely appreciate the work being done by the driver you've spoken with in Fort Simpson. But just because barriers are not in-place in a taxi does not necessarily mean they are being non-compliant," Westwick wrote. 

The territory's Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission (WSCC) also recommends taxi drivers "create a physical barrier" between themselves and passengers." It's the first recommendation in its COVID-19 Safe Work Procedures for Taxi Operators document. 

But Cary Ingram, the WSCC's chief mining and occupational health and safety inspector for the N.W.T. and Nunavut, characterized the barrier as a "suggestion," and said a COVID-19 exposure plan could be sufficient without it, for example by using masks. 

Ingram said it's up to taxi companies to create "exposure control plans," using the documents the WSCC has created as a starting point. WSCC staff are available to help draft a plan, but the plan doesn't have to be approved by the WSCC.

If a WSCC inspector visits the company, they can ask to see the plan to ensure the company is following it. 

Asked what would happen if a company's plan was inadequate, Ingram said his office would talk with the employer and ask them to reconsider.

"But we can't tell them [something] is a hazard and how to control it," he said. "We can't provide that type of guidance."

However, territorial public health could, Westwick said, noting that "WSCC will communicate with public health if they believe there are systemic issues afoot."

Gailani Hamad Dawoud of Aurora Taxi says drivers are wearing masks and sanitizing their cars regularly, but not because they've been instructed to do so. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

'We haven't been told to do anything'

Gailani Hamad Dawoud, a director with Yellowknife's Aurora Taxi, said drivers are wearing masks and sanitizing their cars regularly, but not because they've been instructed to do so. 

"We haven't been told to do anything."

Dawoud agrees that the safety of cab drivers is critical. A single driver, he said, can meet 30 to 40 people in a shift. 

"If I have anything, then I pass it to those 30, 40 people, then it's going to be a disaster." 

If I have anything, then I pass it to those 30, 40 people, then it's going to be a disaster.- Gailani Hamad Dawoud, director with Aurora Taxi

A spokesperson for Yellowknife Cabs also said they've received no directives from the chief public health officer or the WSCC. 

However, that company did share a letter, dated March 20, from Yellowknife's Municipal Enforcement Division, which enforces the city's bylaws. It offers a list of "safe work practices," including asking passengers to sit in the back seat and carrying hand sanitizer. 

The letter said nothing about adding a barrier between front and back seats. CBC News reached out to the city for comment but did not hear back by deadline.

Emilie Boucher at YK Motors had plexiglass barriers installed in the shuttle cars used to ferry customers back to their home or work when they drop their vehicles off for service. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Adding the barrier

Emilie Boucher, a VP with YK Motors, oversaw the installation of a plastic barrier in shuttle vehicles that are used to give rides to people who drop their vehicles off for service. 

"That was the only way we could make it work," given the need for physical distancing, Boucher said. 

The company initially used a makeshift barrier with plastic sheeting — the kind you put on windows and doors to seal out drafts in winter. They later ordered plexiglass that their service division was able to install. 

Antoine, the Fort Simpson driver, saw the example while he was in Yellowknife getting some work done on his truck, then he started looking around for materials. 

One shop he visited wanted to charge him $800 for a piece of plastic, he said. He ended up buying a sheet of Lexan and using his experience as a mechanic to fit it into his car about a month ago. 

"I came up with something that worked." 

Similar barriers have been installed in taxis in Ottawa and Newfoundland and Labrador

In Montreal, the city offered $190 per vehicle to help taxis take safety precautions.  

In an email to CBC, the City of Yellowknife confirmed that while they're mandated on public transit, "face coverings are not mandatory in Yellowknife taxis at this time."

Comeau, from the NWT Chamber of Commerce, said the WSCC has been proactive in helping businesses create control plans and conduct risk assessments. She also pointed to a "very well-defined excel spreadsheet" from the territorial government's public health unit that outlines which businesses can be open. 

But, she said, she's aware of tension over the different application of protocols in different businesses. 

"I know that there have been a lot of complaints that have been filed against businesses anonymously because none of this is posted anywhere."