Kingston’s biggest employers making contingency plans for day of solar eclipse

The 2017 solar eclipse, as seen in Cerulean, Kentucky, USA. Photo by Jongsun Lee.

As the city continues to prepare for a very rare total solar eclipse on Monday, Apr. 8, 2024, and for the influx of visitors the event will bring, some of Kingston’s biggest employers are making contingency plans to ease some of the expected traffic-related burdens for their employees.

According to Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC) Chief Operating Officer Dr. Renate Ilse, the hospital started planning for the day of the eclipse several months ago.

“We have put together our Incident Management Team to proactively plan for some of the contingencies that we are speculating that we might have to face,” Dr. Ilse explained in an interview with the Kingstonist.

“The challenge, of course, is that we have no lived experience on this particular issue. We’ve certainly worked closely with emergency measures and organizations throughout the province and the region. And we’re trying to learn from previous U.S. experiences [such as the total solar eclipse of 2017].” she added.

“We’re also getting a lot of information from the Niagara region, because they have a registration system. And so they, in theory, at least have a little bit of a better sense of how many numbers of people they might see. Depending on the day, you get a different projection. We’ve heard anything from 50,000 people to 500,000 people, and I suppose we’ll only know the real number come the day. But our goal is to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

KHSC has reduced some clinical activities, Dr. Ilse said, “so that fewer people actually have to try to navigate the streets to get down here. We’ve postponed elective procedures and surgeries so that we can focus on anything that is urgent that day and also again, so that people are not put in harm’s way.”

“I think one of the questions that we hear most often is, ‘It’s only an eclipse, like, why can’t you just go ahead with business as usual, because lots of places are?’ And the reality is that it’s not [so much] about the eclipse and looking at the eclipse, it’s about managing the traffic and the potential large numbers of crowds… So as I said, we’ve reduced staff, reduced the patients that are coming in,” she said.

KHSC will also have staff coming in on a staggered timeline, and has secured extra supplies for many areas that will likely see increases in need, Dr. Ilse said.

“We’ve tried to stock up on some of the supplies that we would typically have for a long weekend, because we typically order extra just to make sure that things are right. We’ve moved some of our staffing patterns so that people aren’t coming in or leaving right around the time of the eclipse,” she explained.

And, where possible, some staff will be working remotely, or considering other transportation options like carpooling, Kingston Transit (which will be providing services for free that day), cycling, or walking, Dr. Ilse detailed: “Individual managers are being asked to work with their team to try to make sure that we have a lot of people working remotely, and a lot of people planning [ahead for] how to get in.”

Emergency preparedness in a hospital setting must include preparing the emergency departments themselves, and Dr. Ilse noted that KHSC is feeling ready.

“The history that we’ve been able to get from the U.S. on the last eclipse in 2017, was that the hospital didn’t see a lot of eclipse-related injuries, like they didn’t see a lot of really weird, fancy stuff that we would want to worry about. Our biggest concern would be the sheer number of people that might be in Kingston. Anytime you have that many people, we could expect some typical injuries that you might run into with overcrowding and with people maybe not paying full attention to what they’re doing. So these are [the kinds of] things we would deal with all the time,” she said, noting that the ER is not an area where staff are being reduced for the day.

“We’re up-staffing in both of our emergency departments so that we have more people available to handle more people on the event if that’s necessary. This is both at our UCC — our Urgent Care Centre — and at the main emergency department at the KGH site. We have a variety of emergency plans that we could implement if we needed to. We will have our incident command center operating virtually on the day, so that if we need to call any kind of an emergency situation or emergency code, we would have the right people on the call to be able to do that. So it’s mostly just making sure that everybody’s ready, and that if we have to do something more, we will.”

Although Dr. Ilse noted that U.S. eclipse event data doesn’t show a significant increase in injuries from traffic collisions, she is concerned about other impacts of inevitable traffic-related issues.

“We’ve certainly heard that traffic is likely going to be the biggest challenge. The U.S. numbers certainly showed lots of congestion; potentially hours and hours of congestion. Kingston is in a very unique situation, in that the hospital is in a prime viewing area. So we do expect that there’ll be a lot of congestion around the hospital, as people try to get to the lake shore,” she said.

“We’ve also been told that the lake itself will be a prime viewing area. So there’s a little bit of concern, maybe, that there might be some challenges with boats on the lake… [and] likely some challenges with some minor traffic accidents. One would hope that if there’s the amount of traffic [in the city] that people are predicting, that nobody will be going very fast, and hopefully any accidents might be minor. The big unknown is what will happen on the 401.”

Queen’s University has taken an active role in preparing the Kingston community’s understanding of and preparation for the eclipse, including the provision of certified eclipse glasses for free not only to university students, staff, and faculty, but also to the community through Kingston Frontenac Public Library branches, through local school boards for all students and staff, and to many other local organizations, including some who support vulnerable populations.

In a letter to members of the Queen’s community, Principal Patrick Deane acknowledged that safety during the eclipse goes beyond certified glasses for viewing.

“Given the location of Kingston directly on eclipse’s path, it is expected that as many as 500,000 people will visit to Kingston to view the eclipse. This means heavy vehicle and foot traffic,” he wrote.

Deane clarified in that letter that the university will remain operational during the eclipse day, but with some modifications: “April 8th is the last day of classes and they will continue as planned. Instructors will be making their own decisions about how they wish to conduct their classes. For staff, if you are able to work remotely, you may wish to do so. Please speak to your manager concerning your workplace arrangements.”

He added that “for students, faculty, and staff that are on or near campus on April 8th, we have arranged for Tindall Field and parking lot to be the on-campus viewing location for the Queen’s community. Please join the eclipse ambassadors who will be on-site from 1 to 5 pm to guide your viewing experience, point out phenomena such as the Diamond Ring Effect and Bailey’s Beads, and answer questions. During totality, we can expect to experience near-night conditions and the effects of the eclipse such as cooler temperatures, distinctive shadows, and unusual animal behaviour. Many of these effects will happen even in overcast conditions.”

Use of that space as a viewing area means that parking options will be even more limited than usual. “Tindall parking lot will be closed beginning on Friday, April 5th at 5 p.m. and reopen Tuesday, April 9th,” the letter stated. “Surface lot permit holders will receive communications regarding alternative parking options.”

The St. Lawrence College (SLC) community also received eclipse-day directives from President and CEO Glenn Vollebregt.

“Employees who can work from home are asked to do so,” Vollebregt’s letter urged, “and SLC-related travel (between campuses or for work reasons) planned for the day of April 8 is to be rescheduled to a different date.”

The impact on students for the day was also addressed, as Vollebregt noted that “most in-person classes scheduled for April 8 will be delivered online… Students attending placement or clinical on April 8 are to check with their placement/clinical contact to confirm whether their placement is proceeding.”

Additionally, due to concerns over both potential interruptions to cellular/internet service and transportation issues for off-campus students, Vollebregt confirmed that any exams scheduled for April 8 will be moved to a different date.

SLC, in partnership with Indigenous members of the college community, had planned to host tri-campus Condolence Ceremonies on the day of the eclipse, called Wiping the Tears: From the Shadows to Reconciliation. Unfortunately, developing logistical issues in the region, including the City of Kingston’s implementation of a full burn ban that would not permit the planned sacred fire, necessitated the event’s cancellation for April 8.

However, Vollebregt’s letter confirmed that the Condolence Ceremonies would be rescheduled to the fall of this year.

“This ceremony is an important way our college and community can come together on a path for true reconciliation while addressing our grief. I would like to thank all those who have submitted their thoughts on grief, truth, and reconciliation to the woven baskets in the libraries – folks are encouraged to do so if you have not yet had the chance. The baskets will remain in place, gathering reflections which will be included in the fall ceremony,” Vollebregt expressed.

Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Kingston and the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) also notified their community that they are taking measures to reduce traffic in and around the base and campus during the eclipse.

Like Queen’s and SLC, encouragement for staff to work remotely, if possible, was prominent in the communication from Lt. Devon Gorman, Public Affairs Officer at CFB Kingston.

“CFB Kingston and RMC have encouraged supervisors and managers to adopt flexible working arrangements for their team members, in accordance with relevant public service, military, and non-public employee policies concerning flexible workplace arrangements,” read the letter. 

Although the RMC campus might seem like an ideally situated location for eclipse viewing, Gorman clarified that it will not be open to the public: “RMC is also imposing access restrictions from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. April 8, 2024. Authorized persons (staff, students, faculty, pre-approved visits/contractors, and essential deliveries) will be permitted. Visitors seeking access to the campus for eclipse viewing or any non-approved visits will be denied access. Delivery services will be limited to those deemed as essential to operations, such as Cadet Dining Hall food delivery or mail. Staff have been directed to notify vendors to deliver as early as possible in the day or delay their services to the following day. Personal food deliveries and other delivery services will not be allowed access to the RMC campus.” 

Safety of military families living in CFB’s military housing was also addressed.

“CFB Kingston will also close the gate on Fort Henry Drive that connects to the Residential Housing Units to limit disturbance to the military families that reside there,” Gorman wrote. “Military Police will be coordinating access to the gate if required in case of emergencies.”

KHSC’s Dr. Ilse noted that everyone in the community has a part to play to make eclipse day successful, even if it’s just staying put and staying as safe as possible.

“We’re going to need a lot of patience and a lot of support from the community… everybody can do their part to make sure that we have emergency access to the hospital. Keeping roadways clear, making sure that police, fire, and paramedics can do their job, and of course airspace around KGH is going to be restricted,” she explained.

“If everybody works together, this is a really, really exciting thing,” Dr. Ilse enthused. “You know, I’ve talked a lot about all the bad things that can happen… but it’s exciting. We’re going to experience a once-in-a-lifetime event. And we would like people to participate safely, and just really enjoy the eclipse, because it’s going to create some great memories.”

More details on what is happening in Kingston regarding the solar eclipse can be found in the Kingstonist guide to the solar eclipse.

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