By Tyler Waugh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Frontline staff at the Dr. Duncan Murray Recreation Centre will again be called upon to screen for the Restrictions Exemption Program (REP) effective Dec. 28 after Town council decided Dec. 21 to not allocate funds for additional help.

Council was presented with a report titled COVID-19 Restrictions Exemption Program Related Security Services as part of the Dec. 21 regular meeting agenda. 

It was ultimately decided by a 4-3 vote to accept the report for information, meaning the REP will continue to be implemented, but without additional staff or contracted services. Mayor Marcel Michaels and councillors Brian LaBerge, Stuart Taylor and Ryan Maguhn voted in favour of accepting the report for information put forward by Taylor, while councillors JoAnn Race, Trevor Haas and Albert Ostashek voted against the motion.

Coun. Ostashek had put forward a motion earlier in the meeting that reflected the administrative recommendation to approve up to $50,000 for contracted security services for the remainder 2021 and up to April 15, 2022, to continue the COVID-19 Restrictions Exemption Program at the Dr. Duncan Murray Recreation Centre and other municipal buildings on an as needed basis.

“I feel it’s important that staff and patrons at the Rec Centre and other public buildings feel safe and that they feel comfortable in attending and working at those facilities,” Ostashek had said in support of his motion.

Mayor Michaels said he struggled with what would be the best approach, pointing out that the amount of funds required to keep the security contractors on site would work out to about the same per year it would take to hire another community police officer.

He said that other municipalities and local businesses have managed the implementation of the REP without extra security, and said that maybe the Town should instead revisit partnering with the RCMP to ensure the safety of staff by laying charges against those who continue to cause issues and contravene the REP.

Coun. Taylor said he didn’t think it was a mistake to bring on the security screening service initially, especially considering the restrictions were new and that there were concerns, but he thought that the public has had ample time to adjust to the measures.

Coun. LaBerge said that he understands there is still some resistance to the REP, but that if small businesses and restaurants have been able to manage then maybe it was time for the Town to also take that step with its existing staff only.

“At some point I think we need to get on with life,” LaBerge said.

The administrative report outlined how the contract with the security service had provisions to continue plus adjust as necessary. The weekly costs were $2,758.75, and the 16-week stretch between Dec. 27 to April 18 was anticipated to cost $44,140.

“Continuation of utilizing the current contractor will ensure an uninterrupted service under the REP,” read the report.

Ostashek’s motion was defeated along the same lines as the other vote with a 4-3 split.

The administrative report outlined how the REP – which requires a provincially mandated screening process – was implemented at the recreation centre effective Sept. 20.

Staff initially undertook the screening process but, after a couple incidents of non-compliance raised questions of staff and patron security, it was decided to contract an outside company to ensure screening was fulfilled at the building entrance effective Oct. 5.

Administration reported that between Nov. 2 and Nov. 29 the security company conducted access screening for 262.5 hours with a reduction of hours implemented Nov. 17 from 95 hours per week to 57.5 hours per week.

Some weekend hours were extended due to minor hockey games, tournaments and Hinton Timberwolves home games. There were 3,239 visitors screened up to Nov. 10, at which point the sign-in and name tracking was discontinued.

Access was denied to an average of four patrons per week based on the inability to provide appropriate proof, test result or exemption. There were two incidents reported in November, one of which resulted in the RCMP was called to location to enforce the REP guidelines.

“During the second period, the public has been continuously educated regarding the REP changes and access protocols by the security staff, the customer service clerks, and management staff,” read the report presented by interim CAO Laura Howarth.

“Wait times at the entrance have been reduced to a maximum wait time of approximately 5 minutes overall.”

Council was presented with two other options, including the option to hire additional staff – the equivalent of 1.5 full-time equivalents – to implement the REP.

The other option was to discontinue the REP, which administration said would result in the cessation of adult programming like aqua fitness and adult hockey, and would mean the facility would be subject to 1/3 capacity for all events/tournaments and games. This option would result in an estimated revenue loss of $66,000.

Coun. Maguhn hoped administration could work with key user groups to come up with a solution in support of implementing the REP without additional staffing or contracted services.

This item is reprinted with permission from The Hinton Voice, Hinton, Alberta.

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