The Comox Valley’s three mayors all say that while Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth has granted municipal bylaw officers added authority to levy fines for those not abiding by public health standards during the COVID-19 crisis, they have seen no need to step up enforcement.
“I think it’s been pretty good for the most part,” said Courtenay Mayor Bob Wells. “I sent a pretty clear message last week, to stay home unless what you are doing is essential. I think a lot of businesses have reacted [responsibly] and a lot of people are staying home.”
Wells said City public works employees have been instructed to approach any large gatherings, or people not adhering to the social distancing instructions, and advise those people of the instructions, in a “polite but firm” manner.
“That’s been received really well,” said Wells. “If somebody has a complaint and they want to notify us, absolutely, that’s part of this, but we are still adapting as well … we don’t have several bylaw officers to call upon to respond to several calls at the same time. But we are big supporters of the government’s actions. We think it’s the right thing to do.”
Comox Mayor Russ Arnott said the town has been quieter than usual in the past few weeks.
“I’m still getting out for my walks, and I am not seeing any groups of people hanging out anywhere. It’s like a ghost town out here in Comox,” he said. “You see people walking and getting fresh air, but … we don’t have that [large groups] issue yet, so [there’s no] need to bring in a bylaw officer to enforce that.”
Cumberland Mayor Leslie Baird said there were issues with large gatherings, particularly in the village playgrounds and skateboard park, jump park and trails, but people have been fairly diligent regarding the provincial rules since the areas have been closed.
“The issue now is when we have nice weather people want to be out,” she said. “We will continue to have our bylaw enforcement officer going to these areas to remind people why these areas are closed.”
Enforcement could present its own challenges, for communities the size of Comox, Courtenay and Cumberland.
Arnott said at the moment, Comox has two bylaw officers, as Bill Smith, who was due to retire, has stayed on, to train the new officer, who was hired as a casual.
“So we are fortunate that right now, we have at least one and a half people doing bylaw enforcement,” said Arnott. “And under the Public Health Act, we can engage the RCMP if need be, to disperse any groups.”
Courtenay has one full-time bylaw enforcement officer and a part-time contracted (two days per week) animal control officer.
Courtenay director of legislative and corporate services, John Ward, said additional hiring is not out of the question.
“We will be reviewing all requests for assistance from VIHA (Island Health), as well as calls from the public to determine if we need additional resources,” he said. “Sourcing additional resources on short notice could be a problem.
“I anticipate additional workload due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we are also still receiving ‘normal’ bylaw complaints each day.”
The Village of Cumberland has one part-time bylaw officer and the issue has been addressed with other resources.
“We continue to have discussions with the Emergency Operation Centre at the Regional District,” said Baird. “I would think that with the demand for bylaw officers that other options would need to be available and we are looking into these.”
Wells said that while City bylaw officers have yet to impose their newly-authorized powers, they will do so if needed.
“Enforcement really is that last step,” he said. “We would much rather not use that, but for people who are not getting the message, or don’t care… that’s where we are going to have to step in.”