Ottawa mayor declares state of emergency

Mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency Wednesday to help the capital react more quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic

Declaration allows faster procurement of needed supplies during pandemic

During Wednesday’s first-ever virtual city council meeting, Mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency, saying it will help staff deploy emergency services and procure vital equipment. Video courtesy Rogers TV. 0:53

Ottawa's mayor has declared a state of emergency to help the capital react more quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"These are clearly unprecedented times in our city, in our country and around the world," said Mayor Jim Watson during his opening remarks at an unprecedented city council meeting Wednesday, where all but two members of council took part via teleconference.

As of Wednesday, Ottawa had 27 confirmed cases of COVID-19, though health officials have warned that's almost certainly a tiny fraction of the actual number. On the weekend, the city saw its first confirmed cases of community transmission.

WATCH: Dr. Vera Etches on what we know about current cases

Vera Etches, the city’s chief medical officer of health, said the number of current cases in Ottawa actually reflects the rate of infection 10-14 days ago due to a delay in getting test results. Video courtesy Rogers TV. 2:53

Declaring a state of emergency helps city staff deploy emergency operations in a "quicker and more nimble fashion," Watson said, especially at a time when the spring melt might also put a strain on the city's resources.

The declaration allows the city to buy needed equipment and supplies without having to go through the usual procurement process, fast-tracking the acquisition of personal protective equipment for staff and community organizations, food for shelters and homeless families living in motels, and hotel rooms for emergency workers.

Toronto declared its own state of emergency on Monday, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a provincewide state of emergency last week.

A different kind of emergency

"This is a very unique situation compared to the number of things we've been involved in from ice storms, to multi-day blackouts, floods, tornadoes," said city manager Steve Kanellakos, who asked Watson to make the declaration.

It's harder to predict what might happen, to figure out how to adapt or to make plans to recover, Kanellakos said.

First responders, the social workers and others have been working around the clock to maintain essential services, he said, while putting themselves at personal risk. At the same time, Kanellakos said the city is predicting a rise in absenteeism due to self-isolation and child-care demands.

"Our workforce capacity is going to shrink as we enter the peak of this," he said.

The city would face further strain if the Ottawa area sees flooding this spring, as it did in 2017 and 2019, he added.

Water flows have risen only slightly and the weather forecast looks good for now, Kanellakos said, but he reminded council that the city was in the same position early last April, only to see water levels rise to dangerous levels by the end of the month.

Property tax and water bills deferred

Council also unanimously passed a motion to defer the interim property tax bill, which was mailed out late last month and is usually payable on the third Thursday in March. Residents now have until April 15 to pay.

As well, residents and commercial property owners whose buildings are assessed at less than $7.5 million can apply to extend the deferral until Oct. 30 if they are facing hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Council asked that all landlords use the deferral to give tenants a break, although the city has no power to enforce the request.

Residents also have an extra 30 days to pay water bills issued before April 1, and an additional month to pay all water bills issued until October of this year. 

We check in with two city councillors who attended today's unprecedented council meeting by teleconference. 9:32

Cumberland ward declared vacant

Council also agreed to declare the seat for Cumberland ward vacant, after former councillor Stephen Blais was elected MPP for Orléans last month. 

There was no decision on whether to hold a byelection or appoint someone to the seat, options allowed under the Municipal Elections Act. If at its next meeting on April 8 council does opt for a byelection, it would have to be held between June 22 and Aug. 31.

City clerk Rick O'Connor will report back with more details on the options. In the meantime, councillors Matthew Luloff, Laura Dudas and George Darouze will help residents from the city's eastern-most ward. 

With files from Joanne Chianello