Provinces across the country are beginning to lift public health measures related to COVID-19 that have crippled small businesses for the past two years.
Saskatchewan and Alberta have been the leaders and reports indicate even Ontario, with some of the toughest lockdown measures in the country during the past 24 months, is contemplating an easing of restrictions.
“The last two years have taken a significant toll on Albertans’ overall health, social and economic well-being. Now that we are through the worst of the fifth wave and have achieved high vaccination rates, it is time to shift to a balanced approach where we are able to live with COVID-19 and return to normal,” said Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.
Alberta introduced this week a three-step approach, which included the removal of the Restrictions Exemption Program and capacity limits on venues under 500 capacity, including libraries and places of worship, and allows for food and beverage consumption in seated audience settings for large events and entertainment venues. Mandatory masking for children and youth in schools, and for youth aged 12 and under in any setting will end Feb. 13 at 11:59 p.m.
Annie Dormuth, Provincial Affairs Director, Alberta, for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said the decision is a “step toward recovery and a new phase for Alberta small businesses.”
But the government announcement didn’t go far enough as it kept in place the more damaging business restrictions, like the liquor service cut off and mandatory work from home, until the end of the month.
“As we press forward it is important that we don’t slide back. We continue to call on the Alberta government to develop a “stay-open” plan to provide clarity and certainty as we continue to manage the pandemic. This would include ensuring there is adequate healthcare capacity to avoid any renewed restrictions or business closures,” she said.
“Removing business restrictions is a big step, but only the first towards a small business recovery plan. Currently, only 27 per cent of Alberta small businesses are at normal sales and 21 per cent are still actively considering bankruptcy. The average Alberta small business has inherited over $165,000 in new debt just to survive the restrictions of the past two years.
“We call on the Alberta government to back up (this week’s) announcement with a plan to boost consumer confidence over the weeks ahead. After two years of uncertainty, messaging needs to shift towards encouraging the safe return to activities like dining, seeing a movie, going to the gym, events and travel so that our small businesses can begin the long road to recovery.”
Deborah Yedlin, President and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, said the provincial government’s announcement on the immediate removal of all pandemic measures and restrictions ignores the importance of consumer confidence in the economic recovery.
“While policies must adapt to our changing context, tools such as the Restrictions Exemption Program (REP) and masking remain critical to ensuring people feel comfortable dining at restaurants, attending sporting and entertainment events, engaging in group physical activities and going to work,” she said. “While the time will come for pandemic measures to sunset, the removal of REP is akin to ripping the Band-aid off before the wound has healed. The latest data gathered from wastewater tracking by UCalgary shows the viral load is declining at a slower rate compared with how quickly it rose. The changes made (this week) are sudden – and have been announced against a backdrop of tools such as rapid testing and contact tracing no longer being available to help businesses keep staff and patrons safe and comfortable.
“Lifting these restrictions will likely lead to several unintended consequences. Businesses that rely on discretionary spending may see a decline in revenue as consumers choose to stay home and minimize the potential for exposure. Industries and public services that rely on front-line employees are already facing severe labour shortages – and jeopardizing the comfort and safety of staff is likely to exacerbate these challenges. Schools may see an increase in infection rates, sending children and teachers home and disrupting work patterns and productivity for many parents.”
“We would all like to return to having no restrictions and going back to seeing loved ones and engaging in all the activities we enjoy. But we must only do so only when we have adequate certainty that the probability of infection and illness is very low and that a more severe variant is not on the horizon. We are not there yet. To facilitate the ability to treat this as endemic, we urge all orders of government to work together to provide businesses with the option to continue with pandemic measures, the tools to stay open and safe and clarity on overlapping regulations.”
Also this week, the Saskatchewan government announced that provincial requirements to provide proof of vaccination or negative tests in Saskatchewan businesses, workplaces and other public venues will end February 14 at 12:01 a.m. The remaining public health orders requiring masking in indoor public spaces will remain in effect until the end of February.
“Proof of vaccination has been an effective policy, but its effectiveness has run its course,” said Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe. “The benefits no longer outweigh the costs. It’s time to heal the divisions over vaccination in our families, in our communities and in our province. It’s time for proof of vaccination requirements to end.
“As we shift to living with COVID-19, there is a continuing need for personal responsibility for self-monitoring, self-testing and self-management. It will be important for individuals to assess their own risk and comfort levels, and to take appropriate action if they are unwell.”
On Thursday, CTV News reported that Ontario Premier Doug Ford is set to consider new regulations this week to speed up the economic reopening timeline. Sources told CTV that the Ontario cabinet could consider the new measures as early as Friday.
Besides the easing of public health restrictions, small businesses across Canada received some more good news this week with the announcement by the federal government that it will extend enhanced key support programs.
It said it intends to expand access to the following programs until March 12:
- Local Lockdown Program: Eligibility would continue to include employers subject to capacity-limiting restrictions of 50 per cent or more; and the current-month revenue decline threshold requirement would remain at 25 per cent. Eligible employers would receive wage and rent subsidies from 25 per cent up to a maximum of 75 per cent, depending on their degree of revenue loss. The 12-month revenue decline test continues to not be required in order to access this support; and
- Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit: Eligibility would continue to include workers in regions where capacity-limiting restrictions of 50 per cent or more are in place. This benefit provides $300 a week in income support to eligible workers affected by a COVID-19-related public health lockdown order, and who are either unable to work or have lost 50 per cent or more of their income as a result.
“In October, when we introduced these more targeted measures, we didn’t know the Omicron variant was coming. But we made sure we were ready and that we had the flexibility to extend benefits until provincial restrictions are removed. Given recent announcements by provinces, that process is now underway,” said Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance.
“We are beginning to see public health measures easing in some parts of the country, but this pandemic still remains uncertain. That’s why we’re extending the temporary expanded lockdown definition for the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit. We’ve seen just how vital these supports have been to Canadians so far, and we have to ensure they’re available in the event that regional lockdowns continue. We’ll continue to be there for Canadians, and help make sure that they have the support they need to stay home and stay safe,” said Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion.
Dan Kelly, President and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said currently only 65 per cent of small businesses across the country are fully open, only 42 per cent are fully staffed and just 30 per cent are back to their pre-pandemic sales levels. He said the federal government announcement gives many businesses the ability to plan for the weeks ahead as they await the lifting of restrictions.
“While this change is a positive move, some businesses continue to slip through the cracks of existing federal supports. Many businesses who are impacted by ongoing restrictions in the events, tourism and hospitality industries have not been able to qualify for the Tourism and Hospitality Recovery Program (THRP). These businesses include thousands who supply or support restricted industries, including hotel soap makers, pet boarding services, ice sculptors and lighting contractors for events, among others,” he said.
“Many provinces are beginning to rapidly dismantle many of the COVID restrictions, including lockdowns, capacity restrictions and vaccine passport systems. This is welcome news, but the reality is that until public health officials and governments can encourage consumers to return to dining, theatre and travel, the COVID fear factor will be enough to keep many Canadians at home. Until then, businesses are going to need some degree of support.”
The CFIB said it is urging the federal government to expand the THRP to include businesses who depend on tourism, hospitality or events. Other critical changes to the federal support programs include:
- Reintroducing the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loan program, increasing the amount to $80,000 and the forgivable portion to 50 per cent;
- Returning the wage and rent subsidies to the levels used in spring 2021: available to all businesses on a sliding scale as a percentage of their revenue losses to a maximum of 75 per cent; and
- Including new businesses that started after the pandemic began in all business support programs.