‘Cautious optimism’ for first stage of reopening
By Jenn Watt
Representatives of the county’s business community say there is cautious optimism from among their membership following the province’s decision to begin stage one of the reopening process this week.
On May 14, Premier Doug Ford released a list of businesses that can reopen or expand their offerings in Ontario including medical services, counsellors, golf courses, marinas, veterinarians, housekeeping, pet grooming and training, some retail services, and construction. These businesses must observe safety guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Haliburton County’s business community is flexible, said Haliburton Highlands Chamber of Commerce executive director Jennifer Locke, a necessary trait when operating in a seasonal economy.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the necessary closure of many industries has presented real challenges: “they [businesses] are now tasked with new guidelines around safe operations, often involving reduced capacities for revenue and significant changes in operations (for example, one worker per vehicle driving to job sites). They feel that the government information is often vague and unclear, and are concerned about the social risk and legal implications of making the ‘wrong move,’” Locke said.
Andrea Strano, president of the local chamber of commerce, said government assistance programs for business have helped, but not all members are eligible.
“For some, the support has helped members retain all their employees and avoid not having to lay people off, but for others, mostly the self-employed individuals with variable incomes throughout the year, it hasn’t been helpful,” Strano said. “The government needs to recognize that recovery is going to vary by community – for example a lot of our members make 80 per cent of their income in a two-month period during the summer. There needs to be more long-term support as far as forgivable business loans as the support they have received so far is only sustainable for the short term. Many business owners have spent through their CEBA [Canadian Emergency Business Account] loan in a matter of a couple weeks.”
Locke said she is hearing from businesses “cautious optimism” and that they’re seeing the “light at the end of the tunnel” with the arrival of the first stage of reopening.
The chamber wants to see all businesses up and running soon, added Strano, but it has to be done in a safe manner.
“We have to trust the advice the provincial government is being given by medical experts. I will say I’m happy to hear that there is a small portion of our members that will be able to open and operate during Phase 1,” Strano said.
Haliburton County Home Builders’ Association issued a press release on May 15 applauding the province’s inclusion of construction on their list and reiterated that safety was their first priority.
“We are still focused on the safety of job sites, workers and clients,” association president Keith Thomas said. “Getting our industry safely back to work means we can get back to providing the housing supply and choice our community needs, from renovations to new home builds to adding new commercial workspace in Haliburton County.”
The construction industry can now move forward on all residential, non-residential, and renovation construction projects.
The association said they’ve been in contact with the county’s chief building officials and “they will be up and ready to move permits on May 19,” though the process differs between each municipality.
Golf courses are now allowed to reopen, with clubhouses open only for washroom use and for takeout food.
Randall Wood, from the Haliburton Highlands Golf Course, has been reviewing the protocols and going through the steps required for reopening since Ford’s announcement. “All the on-golf-course activities have been already set and ready to go. So the golf course is ready to go,” said Wood. “It’s just the clubhouse we’re more worried about right now and keeping it safe for our staff and our customers.”
Wood says the phones at the course have already been ringing from people who want to get out and golf. However, Wood says the course won’t rush to make a decision on reopening.
“I’m still going through the protocols right now to make sure that I can get everything done safely and confidently enough that we can open our doors. That’s what I’m afraid of is that the rush might push it,” said Wood. “To throw a whole bunch of new rules out here for opening day, on a long weekend, this is gonna be a challenge.”
In the health sector, the resumption of in-person counselling is now permitted, but as Marg Cox of Point in Time Centre for Children, Youth and Parents pointed out, guidelines still ask for virtual meetings whenever possible.
“We are working hard to balance the health and safety of both staff and people using our services. With this in mind, we are finalizing on our plan for seeing people face to face. Current clarification from the province indicates ‘that virtual service is still encouraged wherever possible,’” she said.
Point in Time has developed protocols to reduce risk, using larger rooms to allow for physical distancing and cleaning the space between sessions.
“Point in Time has continued to operate as an essential service and is looking forward to gradually being able to expand our service delivery models to include face- to-face service and at the same time we are planning to retain our virtual service delivery options going forward when appropriate,” Cox said.
Haliburton Highlands Mental Health Services had continued with face-to-face meetings in crisis situations with personal protective equipment used by staff, said Beverlee Groves-Foley, clinical manager.
“We maintained our crisis assessments in office and the emergency [department], and our psychiatry services were maintained virtually. We have all been working here at HHMH services on site as we have private offices and we are part of the hospital team. Over the pandemic, a lot of my staff have also been redeployed a day a week to support the care in the organization (jobs like screening staff, inventory of supplies, additional help lines set up for front line staff, development of online services for clients to access),” she said.
They also used Zoom for video counselling groups and set up a phone-in group.
“... We look to implement permanent virtual services in the future which will assist in our challenge of client transportation,” she said.
From the chamber of commerce’s perspective, Locke said she was pleased that the province was supporting business through its personal protective equipment inventory, that connects those who need PPE with those making it.
She said she’d like to see co-ordinated messaging from the province.
“It would be wonderful if the province could align its messaging across its offices that are responsible for monitoring/supporting safe operations of businesses – further, in terms of the culture and messaging being delivered to the staff responsible for ‘policing,’ it would be wonderful to see a culture of support and compassion over an adversarial and punitive program,” she said.
Strano said businesses would need assistance with doing the necessary renovations to make their locations safer.
“I would like to see forgivable support for businesses that have had to spend a substantial amount of money to renovate/alter their business premises to accommodate the return back to the office/workplace,” she said.
Additionally, she said expanding the rules around eligibility for the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance for small businesses program would help keep the downtown areas populated.
“We already had an issue before this started of a handful of empty storefronts on our main streets in the county. We don’t need to add to it. I would like to see something being done to pretty up those spaces, a poster campaign promoting our community, local artwork in empty shop windows,” she said.
Overall, Strano said things were looking up: “These are good first steps, and we remain optimistic and hopeful for a positive turn around.”
With files from Zachary Roman