Public and private sector workers keep Hills running amidst crisis


April 8, 2020

By Hunter Cresswell

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Chelsea Freshmart cashier Debbie Joanisse didn’t really think of herself as a frontline worker. Now, as she serves customers from behind a pane of plexiglass, she is acutely aware of that fact.   

Grocery store staff, delivery drivers, garbage truck operators, post office workers, and the many other workers keeping the Gatineau Hills economy and communities running should come to mind just as readily as emergency or health personnel when one envisions a “frontline worker”.

“You’ve got to be more careful,” Joanisse said about how her job has changed in recent weeks.

Freshmart co-owner Denis Lacombe said he has one staff person stationed at the entrance wiping down the handles of carts and baskets after use and directing people to sanitize their hands before entering the store. He also usually has three staff members dedicated solely to filling emails or dealing with phoned-in orders for pick-up, either in-store or brought to peoples’ cars.

Lacombe said customers can make his employees’ jobs easier by not coming in if they’re sick, sanitizing their hands before entering the store, ordering ahead of time, having a shopping list instead of browsing, following the arrows indicating the direction people should be moving down each isle, coming alone instead of in a group, and buying just what one needs instead of buying out the stock.

In spite of the steps he’s taken, people are still ignoring them.

“....No matter what age [people] are, they don’t listen when we tell them to keep their distance and follow the arrows,” Lacombe said.


“We support these [frontline workers]. I know all these people ... are at risk – not just the people in the health system but everyone else,” Gatineau MNA Robert Bussière said.

Routines for firefighters have changed, too, amidst the pandemic.

Chelsea Fire Department director Charles Ethier said he and his crew of part-time firefighters have stopped doing routine practices and restricted access to the fire hall to reduce the possibility of the virus spreading throughout the ranks.

“We’re trying, like everyone else, to limit access to others,” Ethier said.

Like some grocery stores, pharmacies, and bakeries, the Chelsea fire hall now has a separate designated entrance and exit, and hand sanitizers available. Firefighters are now limited to two per truck when responding to calls, and when contacting a resident or victim, firefighters ask four questions: if they’ve traveled outside the country in the last two weeks; if they’ve contacted anyone who’s traveled outside the country within the last two weeks; if they have COVID-19 symptoms; and if they’ve contacted anyone with COVID-19 symptoms.

“If they answer yes to any of the four questions, we ask them to wear a mask, so we can do the intervention,” Ethier said.
The firefighters also wear masks, eye protection, and gloves.

“We’re trying to give ourselves the best chance because emergencies and fires never take a break,” Ethier said.

The MRC des Collines Police have enacted similar measures to the Chelsea Fire Department in their headquarters. While Chief Yves Charette still works out of the office, all non-essential employees aren’t allowed in the building.

“We cannot afford to lose our people,” he said.

Sergeants and detectives now work mostly from home, but patrol officers have to be on the headquarter’s premises or on patrol during their shifts.

“Each patrol car is wiped off after each shift,” Charette said.

When officers do speak with residents in-person, they keep two metres away from them.

“They have the masks, the gloves and the training – everything they need to do their job,” Charette said.

Like the firefighters, police dispatchers ask callers requesting an officer’s presence if they’ve travelled internationally recently, have COVID-19 symptoms, or have recently contacted someone who does.

Charette and Ethier both said their teams are holding up great in these trying circumstances.

“They’re doing great,” Charette said about his officers. “They understand [the changes are] for their own and citizens’ safety and health.”