Community Update on the Township of Langley’s COVID-19 Response and Restart

Read this community update on the Township of Langley’s COVID-19 Response and Restart including: essential service provision, our planning process to keep employees and community members safe, supporting local businesses, how we safely reopen, what has reopened, and the next steps.

A Global Pandemic

The Township of Langley is committed to the personal, social, and economic well-being of our community members and employees. This includes providing essential services, and ensuring facilities and park amenities operate in a safe manner. This became especially important on March 11, 2020 when the World Health Organization declared the Novel Coronavirus virus (COVID-19) outbreak a global pandemic, and on March 18, 2020 the BC provincial government declared a state of emergency. As the pandemic continued to have a massive impact globally, the Township of Langley, along with most other municipalities around the world, made difficult yet very important decisions to close facilities and suspend non-essential programs and services to keep people safe, reduce virus transmission, and flatten the curve.

Continuing Essential Services

Providing essential services for community members is important, and that became significantly more important with the onset and uncertainty of COVID-19. With an increase in people staying at home over the past few months, our employees have been extra busy working to keeping water flowing, sewers flushing, and other essential services functioning, as we know those are certainties that Township residents want and need. We are a fast-growing community with many people moving here, and many more who wish to. To meet that demand, we continue to work on other important needs such as development applications, permits for businesses, transportation infrastructure, revitalization of the Aldergrove community, and other community development and engineering related projects. We also saw an increased risk of flooding on the Fraser River this year. Staff completed daily patrols when the river was nearing its peak, and Fire Department staff were deployed to hand deliver alert notices to over 600 properties in our unprotected floodplain. Thankfully, an evacuation was not required, as the river has receded. Clean up is underway to allow us to reopen previously closed trails.

Supporting Local Businesses and Our Economy

Throughout the pandemic, the Township has equally focused on the economy with supports to our local business community. In the pandemic’s early stages, business continuity information and resources were compiled and continue to be hosted on invest.tol.ca. As the pandemic grew, to help reduce a major economic downturn and financial impacts on struggling businesses, the Township created an online directory of local essential service businesses that were open and launched a campaign to encourage residents to support their local economy.  Thousands of “Buy Local” thank-you cards & buttons were distributed to businesses to attach to packaging.  An Economic Recovery & Resiliency Community Team was established in collaboration with the Greater Langley Chamber of Commerce and has been supported by sector stakeholders anchored in the Township. With the BC Restart Plan announcement, the Township has worked with all local business associations on a Safety Commitment initiative to show residents how local businesses have prepared for a safe reopening. Ongoing initiatives remain underway for the economic resiliency of our business community as we advance through this pandemic.

A Cautious Restart

With the cooperation of BC residents, our province made significant progress in flattening the curve. On May 6, the Province announced their four-phased 'BC’s Restart Plan'. Shortly thereafter, planning began on how the Township would cautiously reopen park amenities, facilities, and delivery of services that were suspended because of COVID-19. The Township’s restart plan aligns with the BC Restart Plan but must also follow mandatory Public Health Authority orders, notices, guidance, and other legislated rules put in place, and others that may come into place in the future, with the ultimate goal of keeping employees and community members safe.

On May 8, the Township carefully began implementing its Restart plan, and throughout May and June incrementally reopened parks, trails, community gardens, sport fields, playgrounds, spray parks, tennis courts, sports boxes, and several other park amenities. With 84 parks, 83 sports fields, 76 playgrounds, kilometres of walking trails, several picnic areas, and many other amenities to reopen, it took time to plan reopenings, implement safety protocols, and develop and post signage. Our reopening pace has also been intentionally cautious as we chose to make the safety of all people paramount over the demands of some who felt they would be safe if we reopened everything quickly.

Frequently, we receive inquiries with references made to what other municipalities are doing. It is understandable that people will make comparisons, however the Township’s reopening pace has been comparable to other municipalities with similar amenities, while incorporating some decisions we feel are best for OUR community. We have also received complaints from community members and user groups. Some of those complaints relate to not reopening recreation facilities or sports parks for organized sports fast enough, while other complaints are about gatherings of people not practicing physical distancing or that we are opening our facilities too fast.

Our cautious approach aims to strike a balance between the diverse positions of our community members during this uncertain time. By observing the challenges that other cities and countries are having, we can clearly see how reopening too early and without proper processes in place can lead to large spikes in the number of new COVID-19 cases.

Reopening Safely - What is Involved

The process to reopen a large multi-use facility involves significant research and planning culminating with the development of a mandatory COVID-19 safety plan that helps ensure the health and safety of our employees and community members. In addition to the safety plan, other supporting documentation includes, but is not limited to, policies, safe work procedures, and workplace assessments that must also be developed and implemented.

After weeks of research, planning, and facility modifications, the Township’s Civic facility recently reopened for three days for onsite property tax payments, and live attendance for Council meetings has restarted as required by legislation. These small but important steps allowed us to test our processes, measure the outcomes, and learn from them to guide possible reopening of larger facilities for more people, and longer periods of time. Restart work is ongoing and we remain focused on incrementally reopening other facilities when we are confident that appropriate safety protocols can be implemented, and will be adhered to by users. Again, our intentionally cautious approach to reopen facilities focuses on keeping our employees and community safe.

The Township’s large multi-use recreation facilities offer arenas, pools, water parks, fitness centres, gymnasiums, preschools, meeting rooms, and other amenities that attract large crowds of all ages often into smaller internal spaces with numerous high-touch points. Safely reopening these large facilities is the most complex challenge we face. Opening which spaces, offering what services, implementing traffic flow, managing attendance and physical distancing, and ensuring an appropriate level of hygiene is maintained are all factors that need to be carefully considered, planned, and executed while balancing the operating costs of the facilities themselves. Adding to this are concerns expressed by community member that we are reopening facilities too fast. Given all of these complexities, the Township is currently evaluating the feasibility of reopening recreation centres in the fourth quarter of 2020.

Park facility bookings for user groups is also being carefully planned. Historically, user group bookings for park facilities such as baseball diamonds occurred in both neighborhood and community-level parks. To help avoid issues related to physical distancing during practice time transitions, and to help ensure neighbourhood parks remain available for community members in the immediate area, some user group bookings are being established such that the activities of the user group are centralized in only one park. More park facilities have recently reopened for use by sport groups.

Following the Law

The process to reopen also involves the implementation of government orders and has legal implications that must be considered to protect the present and future financial well-being of the Township and its taxpayers. An example of the depth of careful analysis required was the need to mitigate legal risk related to liability. Township contracts have conditions that require user groups to carry appropriate insurance to address any potential liability when using a Township facility. Unfortunately, many insurance providers do not include provisions to address liability stemming from pandemics. On June 10, the Province issued Ministerial Order M183 as a means to address the liability concerns related to COVID-19 for sports groups. However, the order was written such that these liability protections only remain intact while the state of emergency is in place. This unfortunately puts the Township at risk of legal action when the state of emergency expires or is cancelled. Addressing this significant legal risk was required before any discussions with user groups could commence.

Municipal Collaboration and Governmental Direction

Further adding to the public confusion around the implementation of the Province’s phased Restart Plan is the very fast rate at which the phases were presented by the Province, with no advanced notice to municipalities to prepare for them. This resulted in the lack of uniformity related to park facility openings across the region during the initial stages of the restart. The Province is also continuing to take important steps to address legislative gaps and the needs of municipalities. On June 22, the Province introduced the COVID-19 Related Measures Act, which extends COVID-19 related orders past the end of the state of emergency by 45 or 90 days. Given the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19, the Act will also provide the possibility for extension of those orders by up to one year after the Act is brought into force, if required. The Act will also incorporate current ministerial emergency orders so the legislature may pass and formally recognize them. It is critical that the Township understand, apply, and adhere to these complex government decisions.

Fiscal Responsibility

In correspondence and complaints received from some community members, there have been suggestions that taxes already pay for operating recreation centres and offering services, so there are no financial implications or barriers to reopening. It is important that community members understand that recreation facilities are funded and operated through both taxes and user fees.

As the pandemic progressed through spring, the Township needed to quickly assess its financial position and make difficult adjustments to its staffing levels to ensure essential services continued to be provided, while curtailing costs related to non-essential services and program delivery that were going to be impacted by COVID from a health and safety perspective. These staffing level adjustments resulted in significant layoffs across the organization.

Current user fees at Township recreation facilities are heavily subsidized based on projected usage (i.e. revenue) levels. As physical distancing will continue to be a requirement in future phases of the BC Restart Plan, usage will be substantially lower than pre-COVID-19 levels, resulting in a need to increase user fees substantially to cover the operating cost differential, or have facilities operate at an even larger deficit than in the past. Should Council direct staff to operate any facility at a deficit, a tax increase would be required to cover those costs.  The Township does not currently expect that higher user fees or increased property taxes would be acceptable to the vast majority of recreation facility users and/or taxpayers.

The Township strives to be fiscally responsible with our finite tax dollars, and given the Township’s reduced revenues to date, and the economic challenges being felt by many community members caused by COVID-19, our prudent financial management is even more important than ever before.

Next Steps

The Township continues to monitor government and health authority orders and guidance, and research and plan for the reopening of more facilities and services. The Township is currently evaluating the feasibility of reopening recreation centres in the fourth quarter of 2020. Our Restart team has been actively working with user groups on the process of booking facilities and fields for non-competitive skills training, as organized games are still not permitted based on the provincial health orders that are in place. We continue to engage with those groups to evaluate opportunities to increase the scope of their activities over time. We encourage individuals with questions about their group’s plans to speak directly with their group/association for details. 

With the reopening of facilities or amenities, there are restrictions and rules in place and it is very important that these rules are followed to ensure that members of the public that access them do so in a safe and responsible way. Unfortunately, Township employees are encountering instances where the posted signs are being destroyed, and rules are being ignored which ultimately puts our entire community at an elevated risk. There have been instances when the RCMP have been dispatched to disperse user groups deliberately ignoring the posted rules of use for a park facility and not practicing physical distancing guidance. Further lack of adherence to government orders and Township rules could result in the closure of some park facilities.

We understand that we may not be reopening as fast as some user groups and community members would like, yet we are reopening too fast for others who have expressed health and safety concerns. Again, we have purposely chosen a cautious approach that puts the health and safety of all community members and employees as our top priority, but with other considerations factored into the decision-making process.  We thank all community members for your patience and understanding as we continue to restart the Township of Langley.

With the summer season here, with that comes warm weather, outdoor activities, barbecuing, and holidays. With 84 parks, 83 sports fields, 76 playgrounds, kilometres of walking trails, picnic areas, and more, the Township offers so much to explore, discover, and enjoy outdoors. We encourage you to visit tol.ca/parks to find an enjoyable outdoor experience for your whole family right here in your community while being safe and following guidelines.

More Information

Township of Langley Restart planning and outcomes can be found at tol.ca/COVID19, including the Township’s COVID-19 Safety Plan, frequently asked questions, recent updates, facility and park facilities status updates, and other information.  As more facilities and amenities reopen, our website remains the most up to date source of information.

Emergency Operations Centre

Township of Langley