A petition to close a portion of James Street N to increase space for residents looking to exercise and practice physical distancing will be heading to Hamilton’s Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) for further consideration.
At Wednesday’s (April 22) city council meeting, the petition addressed to council was accepted as was the recommendation that it be referred to the EOC, as per all COVID-19-related matters.
“We, the undersigned, are asking City Council to temporarily close James Street North, in Ward 2, for the duration of the pandemic to allow more space for residents who are using sidewalks for walking and roadways for biking,” the petition, which was circulated earlier this month, says.
Access for emergency vehicles would still be permitted, the petition stated and would resemble the kind of roadblocks in place for events like SuperCrawl.
The petition was met with some mixed reviews from members of council, with some pointing to the problems presented by small sidewalks on busier streets and the requirements of physical distancing.
Ward 2 councillor Jason Farr noted how the sidewalks around Main Street E and Walnut are so narrow that lineups in front of the Dollarama at that intersection make “getting by there as a pedestrian a problem.”
In Ward 1, councillor Maureen Wilson says she walks her neighbourhood on a daily basis and says that she sees her constituents are forced to enter the street to maintain the called-for physical distance.
Several other councillors, however, were very concerned that by closing off James Street would set a dangerous precedent and would create a ‘destination’ for people to travel to which could potentially lead to overcrowding.
“The challenge is ensuring physical distancing,” said Ward 9 councillor Brad Cark, pointing out that we’re at risk of a second wave of COVID-19, as was the case with SARS when it came back wreaked more havoc and caused more deaths in Toronto in 2003.
“The only way we can kill a virus of this magnitude is physical distancing.”
Sam Merulla, the councillor for Ward 4, was also strongly opposed to opening up the street to pedestrian traffic because it sends the wrong message.
“A second wave [of COVID-19] is an eventuality,” he said. “[We need] to stop sending the signal that things are getting better. They’re not.”
Mayor Fred Eisenberger said he didn’t see any viable reasoning for opening up the street as the petition proposes.
He said that he took the time to drive down James during morning and evening rush hours and he took the opportunity to count how many people were on the street between King Street and Burlington Street.
“I counted 40 people,” Eisenberger claimed, adding that it seemed like people had enough room to move. “I saw no challenges. There was just not an issue.”
He also felt that opening up streets would encourage people to congregate and would go against everything they’ve been trying to impress upon people to stay in their neighbourhood and stay home.
“When things start to relax a little, public spaces will likely be the first to open up,” Eisenberger offered as consolation. “Hopefully we’re not too far from that. For now, we have to hold the line.”
Council voted to send the petition to the EOC for further consideration. The item will likely be in front of council again in the coming weeks.