The chaos of 2020, a year of unprecedented disruption worldwide, had an early start in St. John’s with an unforgettable snowstorm: one that left people trapped in their homes for days, rationing food and wondering when the crisis would resolve.
Given what followed just as the snow began to recede in March, it’s harrowing for the St. John’s mayor to even think about the last 12 months.
“It’s been a very challenging year, and I think that’s probably the biggest understatement you could make,” Mayor Danny Breen said.
“I find it sometimes hard to find the words to describe how 2020 has been. If you look back, we began with Snowmageddon in January, went through an eight-day state of emergency, which was unheard of at that point, and then we’re just in recovery from that when the pandemic hit.”
Nothing could have prepared people for the pandemic, he said. But the camaraderie he witnessed in the capital city during that blizzard was just the start.
“I never doubted for a moment that the community would step up, but it’s the little things that mean a lot, whether it’s going next door to see your neighbour … to the way that people have responded to the recommendations of the chief medical officer of health during the pandemic, the mask-wearing,” Breen said, during a year-end interview with CBC.
“I think it’s just our way of helping out and protecting others and looking out for each other, and I think we showed it in spades in this whole thing … I’m very proud to be mayor of the city and the people in the city.”
Breen said the city did “a lot of things right” in the response to the blizzard, but would have benefited from better co-ordination between neighbouring communities, more attention to protecting vulnerable groups, and better fixes for food insecurity — issues the storm threw into high relief.
Vaccines arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador earlier in December, providing some much-needed light at the end of the tunnel that was 2020, but he harbours no doubt: The city faces a long road to recovery.
“The impact on the economy and how the economy recovers from this is yet to be seen. I think early 2021 will tell us a lot, and then we’ll see where we go from there, but the concern right now is the lack of certainty,” Breen said.
“To be honest, we’re really not sure what to expect in 2021.”
‘Some difficult decisions’
The City of St. John’s brought forward its budget for 2021 last month, preparing for a swath of unpaid bills and setting aside an extra $3 million to cover pandemic-related losses.
It projects a deficit between $10 million and $12 million in 2021, with residents and businesses seeing no further tax increases. It did, however, make cuts to services like Metrobus and the St. John’s Regional Fire Department.
Revenue from hotel room tax is down from around $3.2 million to under $1 million, Breen said, adding that the city’s — and province’s — tourism industry has been “decimated” by the pandemic.
Downtown parking fees were lost, as people opted to stay home, and the ban on large events translated to a nearly-empty Mile One Centre.
Breen points to downtown’s pedestrian mall, which blocked off traffic and allowed outdoor dining along Water St., as a singular financial highlight.
“We knew that businesses in particular couldn’t take a tax increase this year,” he said.
Breen said there will be consultation starting early next year for the 2022 budget to get the city back on track.
But for 2021, there wasn’t much the city could do, he said.
“None of the decisions that we made I wanted to make — you don’t want to do that. You’re in politics, you want to be doing things, not cutting back on things, but we had a challenge ahead of us,” Breen said.
“But it’s our job … We have to make sure that we take the best interests of the city into mind.”
‘Heavy hand of amalgamation’
One of the big lessons moving forward, Breen said, will be taking a closer look at opportunities for regionalization in the metro area.
Breen said St. John’s and communities like Mount Pearl, Paradise and Torbay already have regionalized approaches to fire, water and wastewaster services, but added “I think there’s more that we can do together” to make the area economically stronger.
“We’ve got to make it work and I don’t think the heavy hand of amalgamation is necessarily the best route to take. I think the route to take is to build on the regionalization successes that we’ve had and expand them,” Breen said.
“And I think that’s what the public wants, whether they’re in St. John’s, Mount Pearl, Paradise, Torbay. They want us to work better together for the betterment of everyone.”
Breen added that it’s not the northeast Avalon communities competing against each other for opportunities anymore — it’s the region competing against places like Halifax and Aberdeen.
“We’ve go to recognize that the public sees no boundaries. The boundaries to St. John’s, Mount Pearl and Paradise 20 years ago were very defined because there was woods between those communities. Today, they run right into each other,” Breen said.
“So we have to recognize that and we have to work better at that. And we do — we have a great ability to work together, we meet often, we try to do things together when we can, and we have to take on projects — and economic development is one of those.”
‘We’re gonna get through this’
The new year will also mean municipal elections, and Breen said he “absolutely” plans to run again in the mayoral chair.
“I enjoy the job, I enjoy the work, I enjoy the challenges. It’s been a very different year to be mayor … it’s not what we’re used to be doing, certainly not what I was doing in the first couple of years,” Breen said.
“But there’s a major challenge and I think that it’s something that I want to continue to take on, if the public re-elects me to do so.”
While the year has had its rough points, Breen said he hopes to stay on as mayor to get things back on track.
“We’re gonna get through this, we’re gonna get there, and we’re gonna get there by taking care of each other,” he said.
“And from the city’s perspective, I want to provide the leadership necessary to make sure that we get through it not only health-wise, but that we have a strong economy, and we recover with a strong economy as quickly as we can.”