Yellowknife city council set to vote on proof-of-vaccine policy
'We've never had so many emails in one day,' says Mayor Rebecca Alty
For a couple of hours every week at the Fieldhouse in Yellowknife, the soccer balls get put away and the bouncy castle comes out.
The Yellowknife Playgroup Association, which hosts twice-weekly play sessions at the city facility, fills the soccer pitch with inflatable slides, ride-along toys, bouncy balls, and encourages kids five-year-olds and younger to run wild.
"They don't get to do that in their house," said Rosalie Tarleton, the group's treasurer.
The sessions are popular with stay-at-home parents and with day homes. And they get especially busy on days that kids don't have school.
"It's a great place also for parents to socialize," said Tarleton, who moved to Yellowknife last winter. "It really helped me and my daughter get out, meet people and have some fun. It's indoors, so when it's -40 C in February, there's always something going on at the Fieldhouse."
But with COVID-19, the number of kids and parents able to attend the sessions is capped, based on orders from the Northwest Territories Office of the Chief Public Health Officer (OCPHO).
Council to vote on vaccine policy
On Monday, Yellowknife's city council will vote on whether to increase the number of people allowed at its indoor facilities, with the institution of a proof-of-vaccine policy.
If the policy goes ahead, places like the library, the fieldhouse, the multiplex and the pool would return to near-normal capacity levels of up to 100 people, provided entrants show proof they're vaccinated.
Children under 12 years old and people who can prove a medical exemption to the vaccines would also be eligible to use the facilities, according to Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty.
The policy would prohibit unvaccinated adults from using the city's indoor facilities.
When city politicians debated the policy as a committee last Monday, five councillors (Niels Konge, Steve Payne, Stacie Smith, Rommel Silverio and Robin Williams) voiced their opposition to a proof-of-vaccine mandate at indoor city facilities. Some argued unvaccinated residents pay taxes that go toward city facilities and it would be unfair to deny them access.
Alty, who supports the mandate, said the volume of public feedback from the debate was unprecedented.
"We've never had so many emails in one day," she said, noting they were primarily from residents explaining why they felt the way they did, and not "cut and paste" emails that organizations or campaigns generate to support or oppose a cause.
"I think sometimes we forget that we're talking about a current airborne virus that is hospitalizing people and causing fatalities," she said.
Alty estimated the majority of Yellowknifers who gave feedback were in favour of the policy.
"I think it's about an 80-20 split, which I guess is representative of the vaccine rate in Yellowknife." As of Friday, 84 percent of eligible residents in Yellowknife, Dettah and Ndilo were fully vaccinated.
Some of the public response also centred on Coun. Niels Konge's comments, which compared a proof-of-vaccine mandate at city facilities to the historic segregation of Black people. Konge has since apologized for those remarks.
Alty said the policy would have the most immediate impact on city-hosted events like public swims and family skates, which, without a vaccine mandate, would retain the 25-person maximum from last winter.
"I heard from a lot of frustrated families that they could never get into the swim, they could never get into the skate because we've got 25 [people]," she said. "Do we want another winter of that or do we want to increase capacity and have more people who want to attend the swim?"
If the vaccine mandate were voted down, sports clubs and other user groups could still submit return-to-play plans with the chief public health officer, Alty said.
Yellowknife hockey and soccer leagues have gone ahead with their own mandatory vaccination policies, receiving approval from the chief public health office to increase their number of players allowed.
But these exemptions add another layer of bureaucracy on volunteer boards and members.
Rémy Leclerc, president of the Yellowknife Polar Bear Swim Club, said the competitive swim team's more than 80 members have been affected by the COVID-19 rules at the Ruth Inch Memorial Pool. Gathering restrictions mean parents haven't been able to cheer on their children from the stands and the club has also had to cancel meets and time trials.
As a volunteer, he said he supports the proof-of-vaccine policy.
The club received an exemption from the chief public health officer, but Leclerc said a policy would relieve the burden of having to draft, file and enforce their own mandates whenever rules change.
"It'd be nice if the city just came up, made the mandate, and that way all the user groups can just accept it and move forward," he said. "That way, it doesn't fall onto us and our boards to come up with a mandate and put in an exemption with the [OCPHO] or anything like that."
Recently, the Yellowknife Playgroup Association came up with its own mandatory vaccination policy. Parents or guardians must show proof of vaccination prior to entering the playgroups.
"Our population, our demographic, is vulnerable," said Tarleton. "We have children ages zero to five. So they're at risk. They're unvaccinated."