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Fort McMurray mayor says 'time to act decisively' on keeping COVID-19 away

CALGARY — The mayor of Fort McMurray says the northeastern Alberta city and surrounding communities are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because tens of thousands of workers travel from across Canada to work in the oilsands.

CALGARY — The mayor of Fort McMurray says the northeastern Alberta city and surrounding communities are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because tens of thousands of workers travel from across Canada to work in the oilsands.

Don Scott proposed several aggressive measures to respond to the pandemic during a virtual city council meeting on Tuesday, including an order that residents stay home except to access essential services. Councillors voted against debating his motion.

"I'd rather be accused of doing too much than too little," he said in an interview Wednesday. "This is the time to act decisively."

Oilsands operators rely on workers from across the country who fly to sites and stay there for several days or weeks at a time.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo's 2018 census said its shadow population was nearly 37,000 out of an overall head count of nearly 112,000.

Scott has long been critical of industry work camps, saying they are not conducive to building a "sustainable community."

The mayor said he's pleased industry is taking rigid measures against the virus, but his motion called for assurances that camps are only allowing essential workers.

Fort McMurray has two cases of COVID-19. Scott said he's worried about outside workers bringing more cases into the region "and then the hospital and the local community is the one that has to react to it."

Scott Davis, Wood Buffalo's director of emergency management, said he's had daily calls with Alberta Health Services and he's comfortable Fort McMurray's hospital is well prepared.

"I haven't heard anything of concern from them whatsoever. My understanding is they're coping well."

Davis said shutting down work camps all together is not an option.

"They do provide critical employment in northern Alberta ... Oil is a critical need."

A worker at the Borealis Lodge by Suncor Energy's base mine north of the city was taken to hospital last Friday with COVID-19-like symptoms. The lodge's operator, Civeo Corp., said Tuesday the test was negative.

Ian Robb, Canadian director of the hospitality industry union Unite Here, said Civeo and other work-camp operators are taking the threat seriously.

"Their protocols and their readiness was tested that day," said Robb, also administrator of Unite Here Local 47, which represents Alberta work-camp cleaners and cooks.

"It was pretty much flawless."

Companies have sent non-essential staff home, but some are allowing workers who don't want to risk travelling to hunker down in lodges on their days off, Robb said.

He said lodges generally have private rooms, but special care is being taken in common areas such as dining rooms, where staff are working 10-hour days sanitizing.

He said as soon as the worker at Borealis fell ill, the dining room was closed and resanitized. Dinner was served as takeout.

Trevor Haynes, CEO of workforce accommodation provider Black Diamond Group, said preventing illness from spreading has always been top of mind.

"The ability for a virus of any type to move through that population is a constant concern and threat. Even with not-so-life-threatening issues like colds, it can affect the whole community if you're not careful," he said.

"This current environment obviously takes that to a different level."

Cleaning is more frequent, cleaning products have been upgraded and more hand sanitizing stations have been set up. Food is no longer being served buffet-style.

Anyone who gets ill can isolate in their rooms and those in nearby quarters can be moved.

The company is not active in the oilsands but serves workers in mining, natural gas, pipelines, utilities and forestry.

Haynes said the camps must keep operating.

"Often what people are staying in our facilities are doing is related to keeping infrastructure up and operating for remote communities."

Diversified Transportation, which buses workers to oilsands sites, said it's locking down washrooms, supplying more disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer, boosting cleaning, and carrying fewer passengers so they can sit further apart.

Earlier this month, an oilsands-bound Canadian North plane turned back to Edmonton because a crew member heard a family member had tested positive for COVID-19.

Communications manager Kelly Lewis said Canadian North started tracking the emerging COVID-19 threat in January and formed a committee to prepare.

Blankets, pillows and in-flight magazines have been taken away. Frequently touched surfaces are being sprayed down with a bleach solution.

Workers travelling to or from sites are presenting paper boarding cards instead of reusable plastic ones. Passengers are being spaced as far apart as possible.

"We provide an operationally critical role for them," said Lewis. "What we do can't stop right now."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2020

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

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