BANFF – Visitors may be returning to Banff and staying overnight in the mountain town, but there is one local hotel that has decided to focus on the community instead of reopening.
The YWCA Banff's hotel operations were shut down in March at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the organization decided to create specially designed spaces for locals that needed to self-isolate or quarantine due to COVID-19.
YWCA Banff CEO Connie MacDonald said a decision was made early on during the pandemic for the non-profit enterprise model organization to stick to its mandate of supporting the community first.
"One of the first things we did is we got our emergency response team and we talked about what is our core business and how can we best support our residents, our clients and our community at this time," MacDonald said. "We really narrowed it down to our core services."
Even with Alberta entering phase to of its economic relaunch strategy mid-June and increased visitation to the valley, she said the Y intends to maintain those safe spaces into the future and through whatever a second wave of the virus looks like.
Financially it was a difficult decision, as the YWCA Banff operates using an enterprise model. It uses its commercial operations as a hotel to fund its core services. Those core services include space for those in need due to intimate partner violence at home, transition housing for those leaving an abusive relationship, housing for those who are homeless or in precarious situations, as well as outreach and counselling supports.
MacDonald said the decision was made to focus on the community's needs before revenues and nothing has changed. The Y also cancelled a major fundraising event in March – VineArt at the Fairmont Banff Springs – set for March 14 due to concerns around COVID-19 that were beginning to emerge.
"What we understood right away was that by closing the hotel, we would be able to make space available to provide support for people who need isolation," she said. "We knew there would be people in the community, people in employee housing, or in shared living spaces where there is lots of people, that would not have access to a private bathroom or private sleeping room."
Eight rooms at the YWCA have been converted into spaces to allow for safe self-isolation or quarantine. The Y was included in the Town of Banff's emergency coordination centre to help connect those who might need those spaces with them.
Family and Community Support Services in Canmore, the local hospitals and urgent care providers have all been able to refer people to the YWCA's inventory of safe living spaces.
FCSS manager Tara Gilchrist and Town of Canmore housing coordinator Kayla Eykelboom have been referring people to the YWCA Banff's dedicated spaces for self-isolation or quarantine.
Isolation is a preventative measure, when someone has come into contact with someone who is COVID-19 positive for example. While being in quarantine is legally required for anyone who tests positive with the virus.
"We will look at an individual that approaches us on a case-by-case basis and as long as there is capacity at the YWCA, that is the first point of reference," Eykelboom said.
Gilchrist said should the YWCA no longer have capacity, the Town of Canmore would consider working with local hotels that have a memorandum of understanding with the municipality in the event of an evacuation in the community.
"In the unfortunate event there is a neighbourhood evacuation, we have access to some memorandums of understanding with hotels to create safe spaces for evacuees including those who need to self-quarantine," she said. "At this point, the Y has not been in that position, so we continue to utilize the resource that is there."
In order to understand how housing availability and affordability in Canmore is affected by COVID-19 and the economic shut down, Eykelboom has been collecting data. That work will help the municipality evaluate where the greatest need is in the community when it comes to housing moving forward.
"That data will help us inform decisions to meet the community's needs as we continue through this," she said.
Canmore's call centre – 403-678-1551 or email@example.com – set up in March to help connect residents remains operational and is a "good landing point" for those looking for more housing resources or information, said Eykelboom.
YWCA Banff director of operations Rae-Ann Roberts designed the isolation program over three days in March for immediate delivery within the the Bow Valley region.
"It is a comprehensive isolation program," Roberts said, adding all aspects were considered and planned for, including laundry services. "We launched the isolation program the last week in March and have been running it ever since.
"We really wanted to make sure that if we were going to be a space for local people who need that support that we were going to deliver it in the right way."
The self contained units are equipped with small kitchen appliances like a crock-pot and bar fridge, as well as private washrooms.
Early on, the Y was supported by grant funding and the Wim and Nancy Pauw Foundation through its community response to food security needs during the pandemic. That meant anyone staying at the YWCA in isolation or quarantine, and its regular residents, were able to access three prepared low-cost meals a day.
"We figured out early on that if we cold tap into a food program we could minimize the use of our kitchens and ultimately be prepared if we did need to shut down our shared kitchens," MacDonald said.
The program also includes wellness checks on residents to support mental health and wellness. Cellphones and tablets were found for those who may not have them to stay engaged and connected as well.
MacDonald said the YWCA will continue to offer isolation and quarantine space to valley residents for as long as it takes.
"We are not going to open our hotel right now because we believe the demand for our isolation spaces is going to increase," she said. "We are making that call and it is challenging because the revenue from our hotel is how we support our programs."
MacDonald added that throughout the pandemic, the Y has had regular communications with Alberta Health Services, other shelters and housing providers and YWCAs in Alberta and Canada to ensure it is maintaining the most up-to-date operating standards.
The YWCA continues to be the primary residence for many frontline workers in Banff. In mid-March it had 103 residents and currently there are 67 people living in its residences.
To support residents, as well as the community during this time, Roberts said the YWCA has extended its operating hours from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. and created socially distanced spaces to meet with clients, but also offers most of its core programs online.
Recently, there were rumours circulating in the valley that there was an outbreak of COVID-19 positive cases at the YWCA. Roberts said it is important for the community to remember that with dedicated space for Bow Valley residents to safely isolate or quarantine, it is reasonable to expect there may be a COVID-19 positive cases in those rooms.
"When we talk about a place like the Y that offers critical services and we put a label of fear on it, we can prevent people from accessing services," she said. "The reality is that quick judgments can be pretty detrimental to someone who may need our services."
MacDonald said the YWCA Banff has worked closely with public health officials to create a safe program for local residents who need it most and everyone has a part to play when it comes to preventing the spread of this virus.
"We are helping individuals in our community manage safe isolation," she said. "It is important that we all participate in the solutions, including social distancing, wearing masks and good hygiene."
MacDonald said the YWCA Banff will continue to pursue grant funding to support its core programming and if there is an upside to what everyone is going through, it is that amazing new connections and partnerships have been forged out of this.
"I see a strong future for us and we are excited about some plans we have for the fall," she said. "You have to find the upsides in situations like this and I think we have found quite a few upsides."