BIGHORN – As Alberta announces the economic relaunch plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the MD of Bighorn is asking visitors to stay at home.
Joining the chorus of other mountain communities and neighbouring reserve, the MD of Bighorn Reeve Dene Cooper wants to remind visitors now is not the time to be driving out or camping.
“We are in a pandemic and as an MD, we are following directions as best we can in the emergency ordered by the province,” Cooper said.
“We encourage social distancing and staying at home as much as possible and we encourage people not to be unnecessarily on the road.”
The global COVID-19 pandemic hit Alberta at the beginning of March, increasing to 5,893 confirmed cases as of Tuesday (May 5). There are currently 87 people in hospital and 20 in intensive care units. There have also been 106 deaths.
In the Bow Valley – between ID No. 9 and MD of Bighorn regions which include Banff, Canmore, Exshaw, Harvie Heights and Lake Louise, there are 21 recorded cases – two active and 19 recovered.
Less than two weeks after the virus hit the province, officials declared a state of public health emergency, enacting restrictions such as public gatherings to be a maximum of 15 people, non-essential businesses to shutter their storefronts and Albertans to physically distance at least two metres in public – all in an effort to keep the number of positive cases low to not overwhelm hospitals and health services.
But as the upcoming long weekend approaches, the MD of Bighorn worries any additional visitors who might need to use emergency services puts the whole municipal district at risk.
Spanning across 2,673 square kilometres with five hamlets – Benchlands, Dead Man’s Flats, Exshaw, Harvie Heights and Lac des Arcs – the humble municipal district has a population of under 2,000 with about 95 per cent of the land in its borders belonging to the province as Crown land or provincial parks.
Cooper said busy long weekends can see upwards to 10,000 visitors camping, sometimes randomly, in different spots across the MD, but mostly in the Ghost Forest area.
“The problem we have then is, if someone is hurt, we have to send our fire department out and risk potential contamination,” Cooper said.
“It’s hard to go to those places and risky to go to those places and if someone gets [COVID-19], then I don’t have replacements easily with a volunteer fire department.
“If you are in trouble, we want to come and assist you and protect your life – but remember when I have a firefighter that is down, don’t assume I have the depth in my fire department to replace an illness because I don’t.”
MD of Bighorn Chief Administrative Officer Rob Ellis confirmed there are 32 volunteer firefighters across the MD with 15 in Benchlands, eight in Jaimeson Road and 19 in Exshaw.
The reeve also noted paramedic calls average two calls every three days.
“Our crew is out there day and night and we need them to be out there for our locals and visitors, but if my volunteer crew gets sick then we won’t be able to respond," he said.
As Albertans begin to get restless in their homes, the Bow Valley is asking visitors to wait just a little longer before driving to visit the mountain towns.
“I think isolation has worked to keep us safer – I think we would have seen much worse case numbers if the public wasn’t complying and I think most of the public is [complying] and I really appreciate that,” Cooper said.
On April 30, the province announced a phased approach to relaunch the economy and officially reopened provincial parks on May 1. The early re-opening changes include opening Alberta parks for outdoor recreation, scheduling elective surgeries, allied health services, and allowing religious services and funerals with existing restrictions.
Stage one, which could begin as early as May 14 includes opening retail services, hair-styling and barbering, daycares, restaurants, cafés and lounges and bars with 50 per cent occupancy limits, museums and art galleries, additional outdoor recreation and additional allied health services.
After the relaunch strategy announcement, Banff-Kananaskis MLA Miranda Rosin clarified that opening the provincial parks was not encouragement to visit neighbouring mountain communities.
“Yes, Albertans are now free to hike, bike, walk and enjoy the great outdoors in our province's provincial parks. But no, you should not use that as an opportunity to go for dinner or a snack in our mountain towns such as Canmore or Banff afterwards. The wilderness is meant to be enjoyed, but it must be enjoyed without putting the residents of our mountain towns at a health risk,” Rosin said in a statement.
“There are over 100 provincial parks in Alberta, and any Albertan – no matter what corner of the province they live in – should be able to find a provincial park to enjoy without travelling a far distance.”
Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw also discouraged non-essential travel.
“Domestic non-essential travel is not recommended. This will not change until stage three. Now is not the time to visit mountain communities for the weekend. Further, national parks remain closed to visitors,” Hinshaw tweeted Friday (May 1).
Cooper said he is more than ready to welcome back visitors when the risk is lower and provincial officials OK it.
"Not that I don't like visitors, we are just trying to keep our emergency [services] workers healthy and able to respond to all the emergencies without getting sick."
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