How COVID19 is playing out in Pemberton: a chat with the Mayor

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On Friday afternoon, I sat down “with” Mayor Mike Richman to find out how the province’s restart plan is landing in Pemberton and what it’s going to look like.

I learned:

  • I always knew I couldn’t really express myself if my hands were tied up and my eyebrows were shaved off, but seriously, I really need to practice not touching my face if I’m ever going to leave my house.
  • We’re ALL out of our comfort zones right now – with our job descriptions, technology, the situations we’re trying to navigate.
  • As a community, we’ve seen the whole spectrum of responses – from a high level of anxiety to a high level of complacency: “our job was to bring the information together so we could bring people to a point where they’re somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, being committed and responsible, but lowering the anxiety and acting responsibly.”
  • There is a ton of collaboration and coordination going on – the Mayor is on calls constantly with VCH chief medical officers, our local doctors, Mayors up and down the corridor and in the city, other regional directors, provincial Ministers and our MLA and MP.  The calls are an opportunity for upper levels of government and other organization to bring in information.  “The level of communication has opened up new pathways for partnership, it’s broken down some barriers.”
  • The huge question now is “how do we apply the province’s guidelines here?” After adapting to the first phase, we’re confronting a new set of unknowns. Shutting down was clearer. Re-opening feels greyer. People have a lot of questions. The province is providing guidelines and principles, and then looking to local governments, often, to help interpret and apply that, or to feedback up on behalf of the community. “On those calls, it’s also an opportunity to push back on behalf of our community and let them know our concerns, from a street level to a municipal level, and seek support and clarity – everything from ‘how are we going to deal with municipal financing? Some people might have trouble paying their property tax. What support is from the provincial government there?”
  • Overall, if dealing with tough times defines a community and its people, “I’m so proud of the way Pemberton has reacted. Not only have we stepped up and committed to the measures we need to take, but we’ve moved through that initial suspicion of each other, and are now, for the most part, reacting well and have maintained the sense of warmth and community we have here. It’s been tough. We’re missing a lot of cool community events and the things that usually bring us together, but I feel like we’ve really kept our kindness. I’m so proud and really pleased with the way people have reacted.”
  • Community, where you feel connected with people, is maybe the perfect place to for us to navigate the shift from being completely ego-oriented and individualistic to being more collective in our actions and thinking. Knowing each other helps us feel less jealous of each other.
  • Everything is overlapping in our personal worlds right now – our kids, their education, our work, household duties. There isn’t even a commute to separate these things out, to put one role down and pick one up. It’s tough. But that enforced slow down also offers a chance to reclaim some things, like having family dinners, which might have been impossible to schedule before.

Here were some of my favourite bits:

“There’s no real education for most of the Mayor’s duties, but this was something we certainly couldn’t have imagined having to deal with.”

“Part of me likes the fact we’re being given some flexibility. We’re all in different situations. Pemberton is very different from Whistler, very different from Surrey. Our living conditions, and how we have to adapt to phase 2, is very different from community to community and family to family. You can’t cookie cutter this. On the other hand, it’s hard to navigate that.”

“Our job at the Village is to sift through the information we’re being given and help our residents now how to translate it. There’s so many questions  and we’re going to do our best over the coming days and up to the long weekend, to sort through it all and message it out to the residents. And also, to say, hey, Minister, what’s being proposed doesn’t really work for our rural communities the same way it might work for an urban centre.”

“There’s a lot of pent-up desire right now to go kick the door open, but on the other end of the spectrum, there are a lot of folks very anxious about that and worried we’re going to undo the work we’ve done so far. So for is, we’re bringing what we’re hearing from the modelling from Dr Henry, through Vancouver Coastal Health, to our residents, so they can understand the information and know how to keep safe and be comfortable and have confidence that they can go out and do a little more than they are currently.”

“It feels surreal, when it’s so gorgeous outside, to not be able to do what we would normally do, but let’s stay patient just a little bit longer.”

In response to questions from community members:

The government has been hinting they’ll encourage youth sports, notably soccer. Are there plans to open our sports leagues/soccer, and how do we adapt that to new guidelines?

We’ve been working on this at the Village with our new Recreation Manager to figure out what activities can we provide outside, with the guidance we’re getting from VCH on youth sports, playgrounds. It’s a more-to-come situation, and the province is really close to giving us some good guidelines that we can work with. We want to make sure we explore every avenue to make sure that soccer, baseball, and other indoor activities can be taken outside – like yoga in the park or dance.

How will the economic downturn affecting Whistler impact us here, and in the future?

I’m hopeful that most of our small businesses will be able to pick up again pretty quickly, but a lot of our residents work in Whistler and depend on it. They have, as a resort, very different concerns from us, as a Village. What does a resort look like as a partial reopening? We’ll all be watching closely for a potential resurgence of the virus in the fall, with flu season, which leads into ski season, so this could extend for a while for a place like Whistler. They’re working really hard to see how they can support all their small business, but there’s no question that a lot of our residents depend on that for their income, so it could be tight for some for a while.

Why is the Village considering borrowing for a new Fire Hall in the upcoming budget?

Taxes did not increase in this year’s budget – we pulled back, recognizing that times are tight for many people. We haven’t actually budgeted for a loan for the Fire Hall. the 5 year financial plan is a planning document, to help us look down the road and recognize what we’ll need in the near future, and plan for that, keep it on our radar, apply for grants. The Fire Hall has been on the 5 year plan ever since I’ve been on Council – 9 years now, recognizing we’re going to need one sooner or later, because frontlines fire trucks have to be renewed every so many years, and they’re getting bigger. They’re no longer built to a size that will fit into the current Hall. We had to modify the hall for more clearance and customize the truck with our last truck and that’s no longer available. When we feel we have the ability, we’ll start to look into it, but there’s no loan consideration in this year’s budget.

As we reduce restrictions in the near future, how will you manage social distancing as the weather gets warmer and more people come to our area?

More and more people are going to get outside, we’re going to see more and more people on the trails, it will be harder for people to stay apart. We’re going to do our best with our assets – like we did at One Mile, to make things directional, signage, to put out whatever we can to help people practice social distancing. We’re at a place now where there’s a lot of personal responsibility required. Meet your friend, go ride your bike, absolutely. But don’t congregate in the parking lot, don’t high five or hug at the end of the ride. You can ride 6 feet apart, no problem. So the more we start to look at playgrounds, trails, the skateboard park, the library, and all those things that we’re told we’re now going to be able to start to open, there’s a level of personal responsibility here now. Use them, it’s good for your mental health. We’re concerned about our mental health! But do it responsibly.

Has Council discussed any future stimulus plans for local businesses involved in tourism?

We have an eye to recovery and re-open, and what does it mean here in Pemberton. How can Council support business, and all different levels of recovery. We’re looking at putting together a task-force, and get it up and running soon, that will bring in people from Tourism Pemberton, the Chamber of Commerce, but not just local businesses, but also community organizations, what can they do to help stimulate not just the economy but our social fabric, people from the mental health community, because there’s a lot of recovery to be done at that level too. We still have to develop the terms of reference and take it before Council but we want to get into it and really engage people that represent all sorts of different sectors of our community. And understand at the Village level, how can we lead, support, fill in the gaps, to ensure the best recovery we have. There’s a little bit of opportunity here too, to look at a new way of doing things. How do we, with tourism, as we welcome the world back to show off our beautiful area again, how do we do that with a message of sustainable tourism? How do we continue some of the good habits we’ve developed through this pandemic. And we’re going to engage as many of the super smart people we have in our communities to do that?

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You can watch the 30 min chat here.

Questions or comments are invited to Mayor Mike, or via email to the Village of Pemberton via

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