Pembroke – With less than 48 days to go, the 2022 Ontario Winter Games were postponed until 2023 due to surging Omicron cases in the province, the uncertainty of some events taking place and the possibility of others being cancelled due to COVID exposures.
“You don’t invest $1.8 million of public money and sponsorship money on ‘if we could be really lucky’,” the chair of the 2022 Ontario Winter Games, Renfrew Reeve Peter Emon said during a special session of Renfrew County council last Friday.
The games, which were slated to be a positive economic influx into the tourism sector of Renfrew County, which was hard-hit by the pandemic, were postponed a few days into the latest imposition of provincial restrictions which saw indoor recreational facilities closed for athletic events until at least January 23. The decision to postpone the games was thus not totally unexpected, although the prospect of the pandemic continuing when the games were first announced in December 2020 seemed far fetched at the time.
The reality is COVID and the Omicron variant is so contagious volunteers and athletes and coaches could become ill which would mean shutting down venues and hotels and this would be impossible to deal with, Reeve Emon explained.
“Our community is not diverse enough or compact enough where we could shut down a venue and move to another venue or we could shut down a hotel and move to another hotel,” he said.
“This is not a defeat by any stretch of the imagination,” Warden Debbie Robinson noted. “It is just a delay in a process. We talked about the best Winter Games ever. We will provide the best Winter Games ever. It is just going to be in 2023.”
The Ontario Winter Games are a bi-annual event and although the province of Ontario provides the bulk of the funding, the County of Renfrew did provide $200,000 in seed money to use as needed. Reeve Emon confirmed this money has not been used as it serves more as a line of credit for the games. However, County of Renfrew staff have been actively involved in assisting with the planning of the games. Originally slated to cost between $1.2 and $1.3 million, the cost of the games jumped to a budget of $1.8 million due in large part to increased costs which can be attributed to the pandemic. The province also stepped in with an influx of an additional $400,000 into the planning for the games.
Renfrew County was selected to host the Ontario Winter Games in December of 2020. The games run every two years. Throughout 2021 planning continued for the games, including the recruiting of some 700 needed volunteers. The games were expected to bring in around 3,500 athletes to the county with an economic spinoff of about $5 million.
The postponement decision was made at the special meeting of county council which began with a closed session. Killaloe, Hagarty and Richards Mayor Janice Tiedje objected to the discussion being held in closed session.
“There is nothing there to me that would constitute going into in-camera,” she said.
However, CAO Paul Moreau said staff are in conversation with the province on “how and when” the games will move forward, so this is a reason to have the decision in closed session.
Mayor Tiedje was the only voice speaking out in opposition to the closed session. As a result, most of the discussion about the postponement was held in closed session, with Reeve Emon making public statements once the councillors had gone out of closed. He said there had been a great deal of deliberation and consultation on this decision, especially with the provincial representatives, Ontario Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Lisa MacLeod and Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MPP John Yakabuski
“We committed to our community we were going to offer a safe games,” he said, adding this was a commitment to athletes and volunteers as well. “At this point with the rampant and indiscriminate uptake of the latest COVID variant we could not offer that assurance to our community.”
He pointed out when people test positive and are in isolation, they could no longer be volunteers or participants and this would be very challenging.
“We were starting to hear from our volunteers some of them were worried,” he said, noting people who wanted to take time off to volunteer might not be able to if they had to report in to work when other work colleagues were ill.
One of the factors in the games is athletes can only be transported for 45 minutes and while events from Arnprior could have been moved to Ottawa or Almonte in the event of an outbreak, in the more western part of the county this would have been harder to do, he said.
Reeve Emon said they have already heard from one provincial sport organization noting they would not hold an event that was scheduled to have 300 participants.
“Parents of other athletes were asking questions,” he added. “We think there would be others withdrawing as well as the numbers went up across the province.
“Rather than have the games pulled out from under us by circumstances, we proactively engaged with Minister MacLeod and MPP Yakabuski and started talking about what are the alternatives,” he said.
Tourism and Opportunity
The idea behind hosting the games in the county was not only to bring tourism into the community, but also show the community it is possible to have large and complex events in Renfrew County, the reeve said.
“We also wanted to offer some encouragement to our young people about being competitors and exposing them to events,” he said.
However, COVID would make it impossible for local spectators to attend the events, he said.
A media release form the County of Renfrew noted all parties will be working together over the coming weeks to explore the possibility of hosting in 2023, and additional information will be shared when a decision has been reached.
“The County of Renfrew was prepared to host the 2022 Ontario Winter Games during a pandemic, but we could not do it while safeguarding the health of the athletes, their families, our volunteers or the community at large,” Warden Robinson stated. “The support from the provincial government, especially that of Minister MacLeod and her staff along with our MPP John Yakabuski was outstanding, but there is just too much risk involved to make the Games a reality in less than two months.”
“The safety of Ontario communities is of critical importance right now, so while I also regret the necessity of postponing the Games, I am pleased to continue working with organizers to host this event in Renfrew County when it is safe to do so,” said Minister MacLeod. “The Games are an important contributor to the economic and social well-being of the Renfrew County community, and as Ontario works to support the sport sector through the impacts of COVID-19, we will continue to support the Games to ensure their future success.”
The decision to postpone the Games is also supported by Mr. Yakabuski. Having played a pivotal role in the county acquiring the Games for 2022, he was frequently updated on the work being done and the challenges the pandemic continued to place on the organizers.
“While disappointing to so many, this is the right decision at this time,” he said. “I want to thank the Games committee, all of the volunteers and the sponsors for all of the work they have done up to now in preparation for the Games. Their efforts will not be in vain as we are in a great position to host the games in the future. I also want to thank Minister MacLeod for her understanding and continued assurance of her support going forward.”