The GNWT says that license plates from outside the territory on vehicles make for a poor way of identifying border violations during the Covid-19 pandemic. Health officials are asking residents to avoid being divisive when it comes to the public health monitoring of people during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A concern along those lines was raised at a Yellowknife city council meeting on Monday during the discussion about a potential mandatory mask bylaw. Coun. Niels Konge said from talking with small business owners, some have expressed concerned about the inability to control who comes into their establishments and the territory and therefore need to extra protection.
“Just Thursday (Aug. 13), I was driving behind a vehicle that had Texas license plates on it,” he said. “Texas license plates in Yellowknife. What’s the story with that that? Another person I talked to said they saw another state license plate – not Texas – in Yellowknife. So our border might be closed but it’s not that closed.”
But Conrad Baetz told NNSL Media last week that any vehicle with out-of-territory licence plates has been properly vetted before being allowed to enter the NWT.
Baetz is the deputy chief public health officer and the lead official for enforcement of Covid-19 restrictions with the GNWT.
He was asked if he could assure worried residents of the Hay River Reserve – where K’atlodeeche First Nation has set up a checkpoint – that drivers of vehicles with out-of-territory licence plates are not a hazard on Aug. 14.
He said it is important for everyone to remember when seeing out-of-territory licence plates that there are only two open points of highway entry into the NWT – on Highway 1 and on Highway 8.
“And with that, each vehicle that comes across an NWT border is stopped and the occupants are indeed screened and there’s certain information that’s recorded,” Baetz said. “So I am very confident that any vehicles that do have out-of-territory plates on them have been appropriately vetted by the border officers at those points of entry.”
Baetz was also asked about the Yukon giving windshield stickers to drivers of out-of-territory vehicles to indicate they’ve been screened.
There is nothing like that in the NWT, he replied. “That said, I can say that we are examining a number of different possibilities that could help aid that kind of a scenario where you would have folks with out-of-territory plates in the territories.”
Baetz said the GNWT is learning and evolving how to deal with the situation.
“When we first set up these measures at the borders, we probably didn’t anticipate that there would be that much attention on out-of-territory plates,” he said.
Likewise, Mike Westwick, manager for communications for COVID-19 response with the GNWT Department of Health and Social Services, said the GNWT doesn’t consider licence plate origin a reliable metric for health order compliance.
“Something we always stress is that license plates are absolutely not a good indication of any kind of violation,” stated . “Most of us who have lived here for some time know there are many reasons why someone might have a different license plate while still being a resident at the best of times – whether it’s delays in getting to the DMV or others.”
Westwick added that it is important to remember that “anyone can come to the NWT to work – resident or otherwise.
“They just have strict protocols to follow on self-isolation like anyone else – and have every right to go about their business so long as they’re following the rules.”
Westwick added that people should feel confident and safe with the border measures in place which are “rigorous” and which have been run for 24-hours-a day for months.
“If anyone is in the territory, they have been screened and residents should absolutely feel safe,” Westwick stated. “And our many follow-up investigations on reports of those with different license plates have resulted in no charges.”
Using an identifier for guests
The anonymous contact also wanted to know why a person from outside the territory can’t have a sticker on the vehicle or a lanyard stating “Essential Worker” – to show they have been properly vetted.
Westwick said the department is considering the idea, but there are specific details to keep in mind.
“There are challenges in this – it’s not as simple as purchasing some stickers and handing them out,” he stated. “We need to consider things like forgery, unlawful re-use, and a tracking system before settling on a particular approach. We also always need to be wary of things which could serve to divide us.”
811 phone number
The source also said there needs to be a better process for how residents can inquire or discuss issues of concern about people who may be in the territory and not following proper public health orders. The person said they attempted to contact the 811 number at least 20 times in one day to raise the matter of the license plates from outside the NWT.
“We have received roughly 2,000 reports from folks who have been concerned about compliance since the beginning of the pandemic – and (we) are diligently investigating them all,” Westwick stated. “There are admittedly challenges sometimes with high call volumes at times, and we do apologize for that. We are experiencing an unprecedented amount of calls as we move towards the school year with many moving up to the territory and dealing with self-isolation planning.”
The department is working on increasing staffing to answer calls and is looking at building a larger contact centre, Westwick added. In the meantime, people are asked to keep trying to phone or reach out to the department by email at ProtectNWT@gov.nt.ca.
Right now the department is not overly concerned about visitors – either those entering the territory at the bequest of their employer, or just visiting of their own accord – causing the spread of Covid-19 in the territory. What’s more is that people from the NWT are the ones being charged the most in issues related to defying the Chief Public Health Officer’s orders, Westwick said.
“The majority of charges we have so far laid for non-compliance have been for residents of the Northwest Territories – so it’s very important to not make this a resident versus non-resident thing,” Westwick stated. “While other jurisdictions do have higher COVID-19 risk right now, it does not matter whether people are from outside the territory or not – it is the travel itself which introduces that risk to our territory – which is why we have taken steps to implement effective self-isolation measures.”
– Paul Bickford contributed reporting from Hay River