Government listening to business sector but re-opening provinces and borders take time

It’s good to see the provincial government is willing to re-open now, and is considering the easing of more public health restrictions now that daily COVID-19 numbers remain low across Nova Scotia.

According to a press release issued two weeks ago, the newly formed Nova Scotia Business Alliance (NSBA), which is comprised of more than 110 people who employ over 30,000 Nova Scotians, met on June 10 to discuss their “serious concerns” over the province’s reopening plan.

The NSBA said Nova Scotia has the “most conservative reopening plan” of any Atlantic province, which is in stark contrast with New Brunswick’s reopening plan that includes a multi-million dollar incentive program inviting Atlantic Canadian tourists into that province, as well as welcoming single vaccinated Canadians to enter provided vaccination goals are met.

On June 11, the NSBA wrote a letter to Premier Iain Rankin signed by 70 of Nova Scotia’s top business people, which included four recommendations to augment the rollout plan, while keeping public health a priority. The four recommendations were: to eliminate the quarantine for anyone with two doses; reinstate and join the Atlantic Bubble; allow single vaccinated people to enter after July 1; and align regulations with the rest of Atlantic Canada and Canada.

The NSBA said concerns within the group are mounting given the tourism season is here.

Taye Landry, President of SPINCO Halifax and Bedford said “businesses don’t make money operating at 50 or 75 per cent capacity, we need to be fully open at 100 per cent, and mask up, and follow protocols.”

NSBA spokesperson, Robert Zed Chair, CEO Triangle Strategies, pointed to the “extremely precarious state of our economy” and the fact that a slow reopening “will decimate our small businesses, tourism and hospitality sectors in the months to come.”

Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton said the NSBA has “a wealth of economic experience to offer up for the province to consider.” She said their recommendations will allow for “a better recovery” for many businesses.

Lisa Boudreau, owner of La Goélette a Pepe Café in Arichat, said the province was “a bit slow” identifying the hardest hit sectors, and the re-opening plan is “too vague.” She said provincial incentives “do not allow for the profit margin required to survive the shoulder seasons.” Boudreau noted that Nova Scotia is already into the tourism season, and most people have already made plans for their summer vacations.

Then on June 15, a press release from the Premier’s Office confirmed that residents of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador can travel to Nova Scotia and will not be required to self-isolate for 14 days upon entering the province.

The province said the decision came in consultation with Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, and his public health team. Although they will continue to watch the situation closely, Strang said lower numbers allow the province to ease the border restrictions.

The province said it is continuing to coordinate the timing to open to the rest of Canada, and is on track to open to the rest of Canada by no later than July 14.

As part of a phased-in reopening plan, the province said testing for COVID-19 has been ramped up, including at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport, and the regime includes asymptomatic testing, as well as in-person and online screening at health care facilities, including St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish.

The province said the vaccine program is ahead of schedule, and Nova Scotians are now able to book second doses, weeks before they were originally scheduled for their second shots.

Phase 2 includes increasing informal gathering limits outside to 25 people, and 10 people inside, the province said.

Restaurants can open to patrons for indoor dining with a maximum of 10 people per table, all retail businesses can open to 50 per cent capacity with public health protocols being followed, and gyms and fitness facilities can also operate at 50 per cent capacity, the province noted.

According to the province, an $18.2 million tourism restart package, also announced on June 15, will provide operators with new grant programs and marketing support, as well as offering tourists more outdoor public attractions and free admission to provincial museums.

The restart package will help the tourism industry prepare to welcome visitors to Nova Scotia as part of its phased reopening strategy, a press release from the province noted.

The Tourism Accommodations Restart Customer Attraction Program will help registered tourism accommodations develop and implement tailored marketing activities to encourage overnight stays, the province said, noting that eligible operators will receive a grant of $1,000 per room for the first 10 rooms and $500 per room for each additional room.

The province said the Small Tourism Operators Restart Program will offer a one-time grant payment of $5,000 to help tourism businesses that were affected by COVID-19 restrictions, but were not eligible for earlier provincial programs. They said the grant will help operators with advertising and other restart expenses, such as purchasing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

The province said it will invest an additional $3 million this year in its marketing campaigns, designed to attract visitors through television advertising, videos, radio spots, social media, billboards, display ads, and search marketing tactics. The Atlantic Canada campaign, called “Do More,” launched on June 15.

Funding will also be made available to attract the public to communities, the province said. Visitors will enjoy free admission to the 28 sites included in the Nova Scotia Museum system and the two sites of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in July and August, and the province said it will work with community organizations to offer outdoor public events that feature local artists and diverse cultural activities.

Under the $10.5 million Tourism Accommodations Restart Customer Attraction Program, administered by Tourism Nova Scotia, eligible businesses must be registered as a host under the Tourist Accommodations Registration Act, offering at least one or more rooms to the travelling or vacationing public and be HST registered, the province explained.

The province said the program mandates that funds may be used for various advertising options, developing packages and incentives to encourage overnight stays, such as an overnight plus a bottle of local wine, or family weekend packages with free breakfasts, as well as customer-focused upgrades or amenities.

The $2 million Small Tourism Operators Restart Program, also administered by Tourism Nova Scotia, is for HST-registered businesses such as operators; scenic and sightseeing transportation operators; outdoor adventure operators and outfitters; businesses that operate nature parks and zoos, amusement or theme parks; recreational vehicle parks and campgrounds; and travel agencies, the province said.

On June 16, the province announced changes to the Occupations in Demand immigration stream to allow employers to hire international newcomers to fill heavy equipment operator (except crane operators) and construction trade helper and labourer positions.

According to the province, the Occupations in Demand stream targets specific national occupation codes that are in high demand in Nova Scotia, while the Office of Immigration and Population Growth identifies occupations in demand based on labour market information.

It appears that, for the most part, the provincial government is listening to the business community, but is making final decisions whether to re-open based on data and science.

Whether that is sufficient to help fully restart the economy is debatable, but one thing is for sure, no one wants to re-open to early and too fully, to only have to re-introduce public health restrictions in coming weeks, and institute another lock-down. That would be devastating to the economy.

But it isn’t entirely fair to say that the Government of Nova Scotia is being too conservative in its re-opening strategy, either.

The province has announced the resumption of the Atlantic Bubble, as well as plans to welcome Canadians from other province by the middle of next month, and is involved in talks to re-open the border with the United States, presumably before the end of the year.

And in acknowledging the tough, almost fatal, times that businesses have had to endure, there is financial, albeit temporary, assistance available from the provincial and federal governments.

Without a doubt, being unable to re-open at 100 per cent capacity continues to ham-string businesses trying to reverse the trends of the past 16 months, but hopefully, they will be able to re-open completely soon, and to paying customers from all over the country, and eventually from across the border.

As with things of this nature, these changes will take time, and will require the admirable perseverance of business owners, employers, and all Nova Scotians, but this province can get through this time together, and eventually get back to some form of normal, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.