Brandon mayor looks back on ‘resiliency of the human spirit’ as 2020 draws to a close

A heavy rainstorm, a global pandemic and the resiliency of Brandonites — three things Brandon mayor Rick Chrest says will stick with him as 2020 draws to a close.

Halfway through his second term as Brandon’s mayor, Chrest says he wants this year to be remembered for its positives — not for the heartbreak, illness and both personal and organizational costs that came with COVID-19. 

“The most heartwarming part about this is the resiliency of the human spirit, and watching businesses and organizations and individuals find different ways of doing things,” Chrest told CBC News in a year-end interview. 

Chest admits it wasn’t perfect. There were casualties — some businesses closed and events that typically draw tens of thousands of people and inject millions of dollars to Manitoba’s second largest city didn’t happen. 

Events like the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair and the Manitoba Summer Fair were cancelled. And Manitoba Ag Days — among the largest farm expositions in the country — has already been cancelled for 2021. Each comes with a multimillion-dollar blow to the city’s hospitality, restaurant and retail sectors. 

A health-care professional speaks with an individual arriving at the COVID-19 testing site at the Town Centre in Brandon in August. After 70 days without a case of the illness, an outbreak that started among employees at Maple Leaf Foods thrust the city into the spotlight. (Ian Froese/CBC)

But it’s the stories of people helping people, the random acts of kindness and the numerous rallies for health-care workers that he says shouldn’t be lost. 

“The way that humanity has reacted to this is the most heartwarming part of this, and really the most positive kind of exclamation point on this, that the human spirit will not be held down and battled back against this pandemic,” he said. 

Brandon had fared relatively well with the COVID-19 pandemic through the spring. After the initial wave of the disease, the city went 70 days with a single new case of the novel coronavirus.

The city moved fast at the beginning of the pandemic and sequestered workers in the city’s water treatment plant as a safeguard in the event of a wide-scale outbreak. The last crew to sequester in the plant left in early June. 

“I’m very proud of our team that by and large, we were able to carry on with regular operations almost seamlessly through the whole year,” Chrest said. “And to me, that’s one of the biggest hallmarks of the year, is being able to kind of keep our community going in the middle of the most unprecedented event in history.”

But an outbreak among employees of one of the city’s largest employers — Maple Leaf Foods — turned that all around. What started as a handful of cases quickly turned into multiple clusters of COVID-19 cases after the August long weekend.

Brandon and the surrounding Prairie Mountain Health Region saw restrictions tightened in early August. Masks were mandated, restaurants were required to curtail dine-in services and gatherings were severely limited in size. 

A month later, those restrictions were largely lifted after the region buckled down. 

Mother nature deals blow

Vehicles became stranded on flooded streets after a severe rainstorm hit Brandon in late June. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

If COVID-19 wasn’t enough, the city was also forced to contend with a major blow from Mother Nature. In late June, the city was hit with a severe rainstorm that dropped more than 200 millimetres of rain almost at once. Streets were flooded, as were basements, businesses, parks and vehicles. 

The city’s wastewater system was overwhelmed. 

“We had a historic rain event that caused a flooding scenario that we had to respond to and activate our emergency operations centre for a second simultaneous emergency at the same time,” said Chrest about the city having to respond to the weather event amid the pandemic restrictions.

That same storm left a path of destruction from Minnedosa to Rapid City, Rivers and other surrounding communities. It was also responsible for one of three tornado touchdowns in Westman this past summer — including a fatal twister near Virden that left two teenagers dead. 

A man from Sioux Valley Dakota Nation miraculously survived the same tornado, but was injured. 

The deluge also sparked major concern with the safety of the dam at Rivers, Man. The potential of a flash flood along the Little Saskatchewan River had officials in Brandon preparing to evacuate homes in low-lying areas. 

COVID weighs on budget 

Looking to 2021, Chrest said the first order of business will be passing a municipal budget. The city has historically kept tax increases to a bare minimum — just 3.72 per cent in the last six years — and Chest expects and hopes that despite the pandemic, this coming year will be no different.

Fairview Personal Care Home in Brandon, Man., has been dealing with an outbreak of COVID-19 since November that has left several residents dead. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

“It will be difficult with the COVID pressures, but we feel that that’s our job to do,” he said. “That will be more important than ever, given the difficulties that businesses and individuals are having. 

“So the budget right off the bat and then just navigating our way through the rest of [the pandemic] and we want to find ways to restore as much normalcy, if you want to call it that, as possible to our community.”

He said recreational programming and other activities that were cancelled in 2020 will be among the priorities to restore in 2021. 

“Our community needs the healing and they need the restoration of things to do to kind of get us out of this COVID fatigue and this COVID funk. So we’ll be concentrating on that to just get our community restarted again as quickly as possible,” Chrest said. 

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