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Coquitlam politician tells council she doesn't 'feel safe' in workplace

Coquitlam is one of the few municipalities in Metro Vancouver to hold in-person meetings during the pandemic this year.

Coquitlam is one of the few municipalities in Metro Vancouver to still hold in-person committee and council meetings during the pandemic, a Tri-City News survey revealed.

But Mayor Richard Stewart said civic business is being conducted according to provincial health guidelines, and infrastructure is in place to ensure council and staff are safe.

The poll showed other Tri-City municipalities — Port Coquitlam, Port Moody, Anmore and Belcarra — have been hosting virtual meetings since at least last November when the last order from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry came down to restrict in-person gatherings. (School District 43 switched to the Zoom platform for public meetings last April and closed meetings are held via Microsoft Teams, spokesperson Ken Hoff said).

In Maple Ridge, council members have had the option since September to be in the council chambers or attend meetings remotely, though the public can’t be present.

In Richmond, meetings have been virtual since the pandemic began while, in New Westminster and Surrey, councils will meet via Zoom until the health orders are lifted; for the district of North Vancouver, council meetings are online until at least July.

The topic of having in-person meetings during the pandemic came up Monday night as Stewart started the public hearing for two Coquitlam land-use applications.

During a committee meeting that afternoon, Coun. Bonita Zarrillo wrote on her Facebook page: “I decided to come in to work today instead of zooming in because I am the only councillor zooming in which leaves me in a position where it is harder to be heard.”

She continued, “I am now sitting in council chambers… 24 people in here… 2 wearing masks… both of us are cancer survivors. It’s hard to concentrate in this environment… and it sure highlights values differences. I feel like I’m in an alternate universe.”

Zarrillo responded to the Facebook comments during the committee and council meetings, with council members also chirping in while civic business was happening. Zarrillo’s husband posted a photo on her feed, exposing the “anti-maskers” on council.

In a statement to the Tri-City News, Kathleen Vincent, Coquitlam’s communications manager, said the city requires that masks be worn in public spaces in all civic buildings.

However, “masks aren’t required in individual work stations or spaces where minimum physical distancing and engineering controls are in place” to maintain public safety.

As for council and committee meetings, they can be held in-person under the current provincial guidelines, she stated, and shared the wording from the Jan. 8, 2021, provincial order that exempts meetings of council where the public isn’t in attendance:

“For certainty, this Order does not apply to the Executive Council, the Legislative Assembly; a council, board, or trust committee of a local authority as defined under the Community Charter, when holding a meeting or public hearing without members of the public attending in person;…. workers at a workplace when engaged in their work activities; ….”

Raul Allueva, Coquitlam’s deputy city manager, told the Tri-City News that council members do a COVID evaluation check before entering the chambers, are required to social distance, and large Plexiglas barriers are up between the council work stations.

But when they leave their station and travel to another area, they must be masked.

Allueva said the council chambers can seat more than 130 people, and capacity has been cut to less than one-quarter to ensure physical distancing is adhered to. “We are lucky to have a massive room that allows us to continue to have in-person meetings,” he said.

And if council members feel unsafe, Allueva said, they can work remotely “at any time.”