Two western P.E.I. mayors are disappointed the Access P.E.I. offices in their towns are still closed.
However, the director of Access P.E.I. says that won’t be changing until sometime in September.
All Access P.E.I. sites closed March 17 when P.E.I.'s Chief Public Health Office shuttered non-essential services to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On May 1, Summerside, Charlottetown, Souris and O’Leary Access P.E.I. offices reopened with Phase 1 of Renew P.E.I. Together. While Montague and Wellington sites remain closed to the public until Aug. 29, the Montague office is reachable by phone, and the Wellington office continues to provide business-critical supports in the community as well as French-language help for francophone clients.
The mayors of Alberton and Tignish, David Gordon and Alan McInnis respectively, have been hearing from residents eager to receive services in their hometown.
Right now, the closest place to register a vehicle is at the Access P.E.I. office in O’Leary, a 70-kilometre round-trip from Tignish.
McInnis is not impressed.
“I’m very upset that it’s not open in Tignish. I honestly think that it could be and should be,” he said. “We had a 90-year-old person drive to O’Leary and wait down there for two hours in order to go in to get their registration for their vehicle, and I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
McInnis recently renewed his registration and said the service in O’Leary was excellent but was “not more than what we had in Tignish".
“Anybody that has to go register a vehicle that’s working an 8 to 5 job, they don’t have time to go to O’Leary. Then they say, ‘Well, do it online’. But there’s an awful lot of people that can’t do it online,” said McInnis.
And it’s not just residents missing the one-stop-shop for provincial services.
Tignish municipal staff take monthly water samples for the town’s drinking water. When the Access P.E.I. office was open, staff was able to drop the samples off there. Now, because the O’Leary sample pick-up doesn't match the Tignish sampling schedule, the maintenance man drives them down to Charlottetown.
“His day is pretty well shot,” said McInnis.
In Alberton, the news is the same.
“I’ve been trying to get it open,” said Gordon. “It don’t make sense to not open it because they’re only putting more stress on the one in O’Leary.”
Hal Perry, MLA for Tignish-Palmer Road, brought up the issue in the legislature after hearing worries the closure was “the beginning of the end” of government services in the area.
“We know the Access centres, especially in the extremities up here, it’s kind of like your one-stop-shopping for everything government,” said Perry. “It’s such an important hub for our community.”
Perry said the minister’s No. 1 concern is the safety of Islanders in the pandemic.
“I get that,” said Perry. “But at the same time, we need to continue with day-to-day living, and a lot of it involves access to government programming.”
The biggest issue in getting the two sites running again is workplace safety, said Mark Arsenault, director of Access P.E.I.
“Both Tignish and Alberton are operated by one individual. So, to screen people and make sure that there’s cleaning being done as people leave, we had to place priorities, and the O’Leary centre made sense in the beginning.”
Arsenault said working alone is not ideal and wants to make sure workers are safe on the job.
“We want to look to expand our service delivery to rural P.E.I. as we go forward. But right now, it’s about maintaining healthy environments for everyone, and we wouldn’t want to sacrifice that to rush to open more sites.”
The staff from the two westernmost offices are working in O‘Leary as well, so the overall level of service is not reduced, just the number of brick and mortar locations, said Arsenault.
He is working to reopen all the offices for in-person service.
“We have two options. One would be to add additional resources and open both offices. Staff, Plexiglas, markings, we need to add those in to help. If we can’t get additional staffing, we will just work on a rotational basis between Tignish and Alberton,” said Arsenault.
All the jobs are filled in the Access P.E.I. organization, and Arsenault is, basically, not allowed to hire any more people.
Instead, Arsenault is working to bring on employees from within the public service.
He tried to hire summer students, but not very many applied, he said, adding it’s a lot to ask a student to enforce COVID precautions.
“We understand the importance of Access P.E.I. In rural communities and we’d actually like to make more investments in that area. It goes beyond the pandemic. Access sites in rural communities mean something different than they do in urban centres, so, we want to create a better environment, and one-person sites, to be honest, was never a great option.”
Alison Jenkins is a local journalism initiative reporter, a position funded by the federal government.