There is, unfortunately, no comprehensive rulebook for how cities can effectively handle a pandemic quite like COVID-19. Organizations like the WHO and CDC have their guidelines, and as those of us who recently rewatched Contagion know, “social distancing” is not a new concept. But the nature of this virus and its impact on society is something that even governments, let alone your average citizen, were not ready for. We caught up with Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante — for the first time since her 2017 election campaign — to discuss how prepared Montreal was, how the city is reacting to the provincial government’s plan to reopen the retail, manufacturing and construction sectors, as well as elementary schools and daycares, on May 19 and how her job and life have changed.
Lorraine Carpenter: I’m assuming that like every major city post-9/11, Montreal has emergency preparedness measures in place to deal with terrorist attacks, and we’re obviously equipped to handle natural disasters like ice storms. Were we at all prepared for a pandemic?
Valérie Plante: This virus is something that is so difficult because we don’t see it, it’s not predictable, we don’t know how to cure it. It (also requires) a long-term strategy as opposed to an event that happens and then you react. Now we’re finding solutions as they come out, and we have to constantly reorient. I’m so impressed by the work that the emergency coordination centre [a task force composed of first responders and city infrastructure officials etc] is doing. It was easy for us to start the machine and say, “Here we go.”
LC: Have you been observing or communicating with other cities in Canada or around the world to see how they’re doing things well, or badly?
Valérie Plante: We’ve been talking with the other major cities in Canada since we have similar laws and regulations. It’s helpful. I’ve been talking to my colleague mayors about practices and ways of doing things.
I’m also part of C40, a circle of cities fighting climate change, and I’m on a specific C40 task force related to COVID-19. I’ve been talking with the mayors of Milan, Seattle, various cities in Africa. Our focus is always ecological transition — we feel like even during COVID, we have to discuss our plans and look at next steps, at economic recovery. It’s very interesting to know how they’re dealing with it.
LC: What level of consultation has there been between the province and mayors, if any, regarding the reopening of schools and businesses? Were you involved in the decision to reopen Montreal a week later than the rest of the province?
Valérie Plante: I talk every day with the regional director of public health in Montreal and we discuss different issues, but it’s really the public health authorities that make the decisions. I decided to respect that entirely because (listening to the experts) is the most important thing.
My hope was actually to not have the Montreal area separated from the rest of the province in terms of reopening a few economic sectors. But having a week delay is fine. It gives us more time to prepare. We’re a big city, so right now I’m thinking about everything — the sidewalks, the streets, the public transport, how kids will go to school. The week delay is fine with me. [Ed.’s note: Quebec has since delayed the reopening of Montreal retail stores from May 11 to May 19.]
LC: A lot of people feel that a one-week delay is not enough, that the reopening is happening too soon.
Valérie Plante: It is a tricky one. This is where, for me, it’s important to follow the lead of the public health authorities. I see pros and cons, I’ll be very honest, but I think it’s the right balance right now. It’s certain economic activities, not all of them, and starting with schools, the small ones, I see it as a way to evaluate what needs to be done differently in terms of public space, where people will be meeting.
LC: You’ve stressed the importance of Montrealers adopting the mask…
Valérie Plante: I invite Montrealers to have a face covering with them because I want to make sure that if we’re doing this — and we are — that we do it right. The masks, the face coverings, are an extra tool for the reopening to be safe. In a big city like this, even if we want to, it’s difficult to respect the two-metre distance. It’s a way to minimize the risk of catching the virus.
LC: In some parts of the world, wearing masks is a cultural norm. Do you see that happening here?
Valérie Plante: In Canada we don’t see it very often and when we do it’s usually because the person (wearing the mask) is sick. We need to bring people up to speed and imagine themselves wearing a face covering even if they’re not sick. I know it’s going to take a while before it gets into people’s minds, into people’s habits. It also depends on how the pandemic evolves, so there’s a part of me that thinks maybe at the end of the summer we’ll say, “Okay we’re done, we don’t have to do this anymore.” But again, because of the fact that there’s so much density in Montreal, I’m hoping that people will consider wearing it.
LC: I know it was pretty painful for you to wipe the city’s cultural calendar for May and June. Where does that stand now? Do you foresee cultural events happening in the fall, or is it still impossible to say?
Valérie Plante: Right now we’re looking at how we can reopen libraries and Maisons de la culture. Maybe some theatres could open up, if that makes sense with social distancing. I’m obsessed with what I can do for Montrealers so they can enjoy their summer in the city, so they feel like they have space to move around while dealing with social distancing. How can they still enjoy some culture and some events in a safe way? That is such a big challenge, but I’m confident that we will be presenting, in the next few weeks, what summer will look like.
The reopening of a few (business) sectors is going to give us a better understanding of the challenges, the technical considerations, how we can bring people together (while respecting) the two-metre distance and the no-gathering rule. The two combined makes it even more complicated for some venues, so we have to see how the virus evolves. Hopefully it just dies and disappears from our lives.
LC: This is a question for you from Twitter: Do you foresee restrictions being relaxed for restaurant terrasses or drinking in parks?
Valérie Plante: (laughs) Drinking in parks? I’ve never heard of it. I’ll write it on a Post-it and bring it to my team. (laughs more) Seriously, I’ve never heard of that one, but we can look into it.
For terrasses, it’s kind of the same situation as the restaurants. If public health says that gatherings of 20 people are possible but there has to be two metres between people, that will be clear. From there, we’ll be able to talk about making biggers terrasses. In Ville-Marie, before COVID, we already made huge discounts for restaurants and bars to have terrasses because it’s cool and it’s good for business.
Because we don’t have safe-gathering rules established by public health yet, it’s a weird dynamic. For example, we want to open the public gardens, and even though that’s the (jurisdiction of) the city of Montreal, we have to have the go-ahead from public health. For now, the no-gathering rule still stands.
LC: Someone else asked about rent relief during COVID-19. There has been a rent strike movement, and people have been looking to all levels of government for help. Is that an area where the city can step in?
Valérie Plante: We can’t tell landlords to delay payments, or not to increase the rent. Before the 1st of April, I did ask land owners and landlords to be flexible, but it’s an invitation. We did try to set an example — the city of Montreal owns many buildings where there’s community organizations and stuff like that, and we made arrangements with them because we wanted to be good landlords. We delayed the property tax payment — that doesn’t affect tenants, but for home owners and business owners, that’s been delayed for a month.
We wish we could’ve pushed it even more, but for us it represents $2-million cash flow. We’re making efforts to save $125-million because we’re already in debt. It’s going to be complicated to balance our budget.
We’re suggesting that tenants, if they’re having trouble to pay for their apartments, look at the federal programs related to (having) lost your job, or for students. That will help to pay your rent.
LC: What do your days look like now, compared to what they used to be?
Valérie Plante: I did change my life a lot, like everybody else. As mayor, I do a lot of project-building and thinking and decision-making of course, but there is also a big part related to representation, meeting my constituents, meeting organizations, being on the field, and that is all gone, which is really difficult for me because I’m somebody who loves to be close to people and talk to them.
There are a lot of meetings. There’s a really small team at city hall and every day I come to work, still, because I need to have my strategic people around me. We have a big room where we all keep our distance but at least we see each other and we take our decisions based on, often, the events of the day. If we know something is coming up, like announcements from public health or the government of Quebec, we need to adjust and see how it will affect the city. We’ve been working on the economic recovery plan for the city as well — in a big city, it’s going to be complicated.
LC: Are you working at home, some of the time, with your kids around? Are your hours longer now?
Valérie Plante: I have two teenagers and they sleep a lot, so I work from home in the morning. They’re not small ones so it’s less demanding as a parent. They’re more independent, they have their friends on Zoom. I don’t know if “busy” is the right word, but they’re autonomous and they do their stuff. I just have to make sure they go outside every day for a walk or a bike ride. Other than that, they’re good.
I get to city hall around noon and then I spend my day here. I take my bike (to work). I’ve been doing that almost since the beginning of the crisis, so it gives me the chance to see the city, to feel how it is. I often stop by the Emilie Gamelin Park where there’s a “centre de jour” for the homeless people. I like to say hi to the workers and some of the homeless people there. Sometimes I’ll talk to police officers at the corner. It’s my way at least to be connected because I miss it so much.
The number of hours is shorter in a way but the time that it takes in my head… I’m worried all the time. As mayor, of course, I worry all the time, but now I’m really worried. I want to make sure that we find the right solutions so that no one is left behind. ■
See Santé Montréal’s updates on COVID-19 here.
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