Health officials with the Government of the Northwest Territories have strict public health guidelines for travellers entering the territory to protect residents, but they say there is always a need for local people to take precautions to protect themselves.
The GNWT repsonded to a series of questions in a May 29 email based on concerns raised by Linda Croft, a cashier with the Big River Service Centre in Fort Providence. Croft made the case that she didn't feel safe as an employee because the service centre is the only stop-off point between the border NWT/Alberta border and Yellowknife. As a person who is immuno-compromised, she said she feels especially vulnerable to outsiders who are in many cases getting out of their vehicles to walk around the store and touch items – potentially spreading the virus.
Last month, she sent a letter to the Protect NWT email raising her concerns. (READ THE FULL LETTER BELOW)
“I just don’t think enough is being done to (impress) upon people that you are not to stop when you are under quarantine and that it means you go to where your designated area is and that’s where you stay until your time,” she told NNSL Media. “You see people coming in and they’re dragging little kids with them and they’re handling everything in the stores and one it’s a huge stress. It’s not fair to the other people who come in to the store."
In a May 29 email to NNSL Media, the GNWT says it is taking precautions the best it can and is telling people at the border not to make non-essential stops. Strict guidelines and reminders are expressed to visitors including the need to social distance of at least two metres, the need to eliminate non-essential stops, and the requirement that all people must go straight to their self-isolation destination.
Feedback from citizens like Croft is important to ensure they have the right policy in place, they added.
"It’s always important we know what’s happening on-the-ground so we can address issues as they arise – and tips from folks like this is exactly how we get that context," stated Health and Social Services spokesperson Mike Westwick in the email.
"(Visitors) are told to take no non-essential stops and to keep their distance if they do need to stop for gas, for example. Gas stations are considered essential because folks need access to gas to travel."
Westwick pointed out that people coming into the territory are expected to follow rules of any establish that they might visit – including the Big River Service Centre – and that this is especially the case if there is signage telling people only one person can get out of a car.
"If you don’t (follow an establishment's rules), the business has every right to refuse you service and ask you to leave," he stated. "And if you still stick around, you’re trespassing – which is a criminal offence."
Croft expressed the fear for her safety because she is more than 60 years old and is immune compromised as she has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma.
Westwick stated in the email that the GNWT does not want residents to be fearful and is reminding people that the NWT is one of the safest jurisdictions from the virus in Canada due to the border closure and other strict measures being taken. He adds, however, "there's never no risk."
"What is essential is to always be cautious – and encourage others around you to be cautious, and follow the rules as well," Westwick stated. "What the letter-writer has done is contribute to making this territory safer for everyone – because we’ll certainly be following up with staff at our checkpoints to make sure our messages are very strong to those coming in."
It is also important that work cultures are preparing themselves, too, Westwick stated, including for workers who might be immuno-compromised like Croft's situation.
"Our own best defense is ourselves," he wrote, when asked what the chief public health officer might recommend. "Prioritize keeping physical distance of two metres or more – especially from customers. Create a culture in your workplace where everyone wears non-medical cloth masks to keep each other safe. Make sure to do the basics – like washing your hands very frequently, covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze with a tissue or flexed elbow, and make sure to sanitize and clean the workspace – especially high-touch surfaces like counters, doorknobs, and washrooms – multiple times a day. Making sure the equipment and supplies to do that are available is a responsibility of your employer – anyone who feels this is not being met should file a complaint with Protect NWT."
It is also "strongly recommended" that everyone wears a non-medical masks for people when they are in public.
"We would definitely like to see more uptake on this because it keeps others safe by keeping the germs back – and in the case of interacting with front-line essential workers, a sign of respect for the fact they’re out there keeping society going," he stated.
Coloured wristbands for travellers
Croft also said it is important to identify travellers who come into the service centre. She said the GNWT could look at issuing "Tyvec wrist bands" that would be colour- coordinated with the community they are to isolate in.
"That way if someone enters the store – we know right away this is a high risk customer," Croft wrote.
The GNWT would not commit to the idea, but Westwick stated in the email that the territorial government is open to making improvements and implementing new processes.
"Looking into some kind of identification system is an interesting idea – we’ll be considering it, and always appreciate it when residents come to us with good ideas," he stated. "We’re all learning this as we go as well – we’ve never been in this situation before, and it’s important to be humble and recognize we don’t always have all of the answers."
Linda Croft's Letter to Protect NWT
I am an employee at Big River Shell Service Centre, Fort Providence, Hwy 3.
From the beginning of the COVID19 pandemic we have seen and served people coming in from across the Alberta border.
Many of these travellers did not need to stop. They didn’t purchase gas; if they did it was nominal amount.
They come into the store, use the bathroom, wander around, touching things, grabbing junk food and lingering while they do so.
We (myself and other staff) attempt to identify these persons – as we feel there is no need for them to be in the store. They should go directly to their quarantine zone.
If gas is needed – the only true necessity between the border and Yellowknife – only one individual has to exit the vehicle. We provide gloves and sanitizer to all our customers – and it is marked on the pump to use gloves.
There is a sign on the door asking those coming in from across the border to not enter the store unless necessary.
There is the problem. Most people (I’d like to say ALL of them – but there may be one or two that are considerate to the regulations – and I just haven’t met them yet) don’t follow those rules, those signs, the directions given at the border.
Just yesterday on my 7 hour shift there were three vehicles that were confirmed to be travelling over the border. None had gloves, none had masks and none showed any care for those in the store when they entered.
I’d like to request that the border control explain this in detail to those coming in from Alberta/BC/etc. DON’T STOP ANYWHERE BETWEEN THE BORDER AND YOUR ISOLATION/QUARANTINE ZONE. If you need gas – do so wisely – ONE PERSON only exits the vehicle.
Another thought that might assist those in essential working areas to the threat of these travellers is to issue them a Tyvec wrist band coordinated with the colour of the community they are to isolate in. That way if someone enters the store – we know right away this is a high risk customer.
People could remove the bands – but when they reach their final destination they will have some explaining to do as to why it is no longer on their wrist.
The safety of myself and my fellow coworkers is deserving of attention to this matter.
Big River Service