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Municipalities push back at York public health's sudden shift in rec facility enforcement

Letter of instruction' rejected in favour of month-long education tactic
Oct. 4, 2021
John Cudmore

Not so fast.

Following an announcement by York Region’s Public Health Unit, several communities are treading cautiously around an immediate enforcement of policy for entry into recreation facilities.

A letter of instruction issued Sept. 29 by the Region of York to its municipalities that would require rigid enforcement of COVID-19 vaccination health and safety regulations starting Oct. 1 at 12:01 a.m. caught user groups off guard.

At least six municipalities are instead adopting an education-first policy until Nov. 1, rather than imposing immediate bans at facility entrances.

It was earlier announced by Ontario’s provincial government that all participants, including players ages 12 to 17, would require proof of vaccinations starting Oct. 31 to be permitted entry.

The Sept. 29 announcement left user groups scrambling.

Minor hockey programs, for instance, are currently in the process of selecting teams for the upcoming season. Some teams have been selected with the understanding the entry policy was to be effective Oct. 1 to allow residents to comply.

Aurora, Newmarket, East Gwillimbury, Georgina, Markham and Vaughan have adopted an education-first approach until the end of October. It is unknown if remaining municipalities intend to follow suit.

"It really threw a wrench into everything," John Firman, the Town of Aurora’s business support services manager, said. "It excuses a lot of kids from the rinks. We were hearing about kids impacted and leaving teams. That was definitely a factor in our decision.

"Ultimately, we have to go with what the regional health unit is telling us we have to do."

The region did not say it is backing off on its directive, although its message seems to be softened.

"We have received a mixed reaction from facilities so far," Dr. Richard Gould, York Region’s acting medical officer of health, said. "Some have immediately complied and are moving forward with the instruction and some have expressed concern.

"We are committed to working with sports facilities to support them in implementing requirements in the letter of instruction.

"As with any new public health requirement, the initial focus is on providing education to operators before using escalated enforcement measures."

In the case of youth hockey, tryouts were shifted from spring to fall, as mandated by the Ontario Minor Hockey Association.

"I think it is a good approach to take the month of October and inform people what the rules are around vaccination policies and follow that with more strict enforcement on Nov. 1," Firman said.

"Hopefully, people understand the people at the front door didn’t implement policies and have no power to change them."

York Simcoe Minor Hockey League president Eric Kopsala said the response has been loud and clear.

"In speaking with associations, I am amazed at the level of churn at all levels, with multiple major changes in policy within a week requiring ongoing replanning," he said. "I’m sure everyone will be relieved when the first puck's dropped and we’ve got clarity on what to expect."

It is a similar approach adopted by the City of Vaughan.

"The city will spend this month focused on communication and education related to York Region’s letter of instruction, with escalated measures, including enforcement, to follow," a statement on the city’s website said. "The youth participating in organized sport will not be denied entry at this time."