April 28, 2021, Toronto Star – Eager but not optimistic: Business owners ask for reopening plan as summer looms
David Scott feels like he’s living one day at a time.
More than a year into the pandemic, and three weeks into the latest stay-at-home order in Ontario, the Toronto hair salon owner said he’s trying not to be too optimistic about when he might reopen.
“I’ve been guessing this whole time,” said Scott, adding that his current prediction, to be on the safe side, is June.
Scott is one of thousands of business owners taking on debt while wondering when they might be able to reopen, and what that might look like.
The federal government recently said that some health restrictions could be lifted this summer if at least 75 per cent of Canadians have one vaccine dose, and 20 per cent have the recommended two.
But experts say it’s not that easy to tell what reopening will look like, or when exactly it might happen.
Patrick Saunders-Hastings, an epidemiologist and director of life sciences at Gevity Consulting Inc., thinks the federal government is being a little too optimistic with its vaccination target, though he said it’s not impossible.
Right now, less than a quarter of Canadians have had at least one dose, he said.
“We still have quite a ways to go before we reach that immunity threshold.”
Though he doesn’t think Canada will reach 75 per cent during the summer, Saunders-Hastings does think we could see restrictions ease during that time.
That’s because vaccinations aren’t the only factor influencing reopening, said Saunders-Hastings. Other measures, such as so-called “vaccine passports,” rapid testing and more could make reopening safely a possibility.
Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said step one of reopening is, well, reopening — certain businesses, with certain restrictions.
“We’ve been partially down this road before, where we’ve reopened parts of the economy only to then close them again,” he said.
Businesses are waiting to hear what the government’s benchmarks for reopening will be, said Kelly. The CFIB, for its part, believes that small businesses could start with appointment-based selling.
James Rilett, vice-president of Central Canada for Restaurants Canada, said outdoor dining on patios should be one of the first things to reopen, and from there the restaurant industry can open in stages in terms of capacity, dining with people outside one’s direct bubble, and eventually indoor dining.
However, at this point he had no hint from officials when patios will be allowed to reopen.
The current stay-at-home order is set to expire right before the May long weekend, and restaurants need to know whether to expect to be open for that long weekend or not, said Rilett.
“The sooner we hear … the better, just for planning purposes,” he said, adding that throughout the pandemic, restaurants have been subject to numerous last-minute decisions that have hurt their bottom lines.
Diane J. Brisebois, president and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada, said the number one issue business leaders are looking at right now is vaccinations.
“The larger the percentage of Ontarians vaccinated, the sooner we get to see the new normal,” she said.
Once some businesses are open at a limited capacity, Kelly said, rapid testing will be key to allowing salons and other personal services to open safely.
Nitin Mohan, a physician epidemiologist and partner at ETIO Public Health Consultants, believes vaccine passports will be a certainty, and rapid testing will be a “reality of the future.” However, like many, he’s concerned about the current underuse of rapid testing.
“I think we’re all aware of the rapid tests that are sitting in storage,” said Mohan.
As summer gets closer, Kelly said many businesses are desperate to know whether Canada will be welcoming interprovincial or even international tourism.
“The EU has announced that they’re going to allow fully vaccinated tourists from the U.S. to come to Europe this summer,” he said. “We need to start thinking about … what are the public health benchmarks that will be necessary for that to happen (in Canada).”
Urban businesses are especially desperate, he said, as many Canadians travelled to rural destinations last summer, while cities remained relatively empty in comparison.
Rilett is not optimistic about international tourism in the summer, but hopes Ontarians will be able to travel around the province. However, like Kelly, he said downtown businesses are especially concerned as people may prefer to leave the city when they’re able.
Brisebois believes there’s no reason Canada can’t follow in the EU’s footsteps and welcome tourists, but said the biggest issue impeding that right now is a lack of harmony between the provinces.
“We need to get our acts together,” she said.
Federal and provincial financial support will continue to be important even as businesses open up, said Kelly, noting that the CFIB has a petition circulating for a third round of the Ontario Small Business Support Grant.
Mike McNaney, president and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada, said visiting friends and family for non-essential purposes will be the first component of air travel to return.
Right now, domestic and international air travel are operating at less than 10 per cent capacity, he said.
“There’s a long road ahead.”
Mohan is not optimistic about tourism in Canada in 2021, though he thinks domestic tourism will fare better than international.
He said there are three main benchmarks, or goals, that will help make decisions about a safe reopening of Canada’s borders. The first is hospital capacity, and the second is vaccination numbers, he said. The third is international protocols such as testing upon entry, he said.
By mid-June, things will certainly be different than they are now, said Mohan. But, he added, a lot would have to change for Canada to be even close to normal by then. He’s not optimistic that will happen.
In the longer term, Saunders-Hastings said some restrictions will be around for a while, such as on a seasonal basis, as it’s likely COVID-19 will become like the flu in our society. Some mandatory restrictions may be triggered on a short-term notice, he said, while people may choose to wear masks or distance in certain situations.
“We still have a relatively poor idea of what COVID recurrence or seasonality might look like, year over year,” he said.
Eventually, McNaney said business and leisure travel will return and he expects digital health credentials and rapid testing to be big parts of air travel for a while.
Like Kelly, he said the sector can’t afford to lose another summer.
If Canada isn’t “as organized and effective as possible,” it could lose out on tourism and business dollars to other countries, he said.
“The cascading impact of that throughout the entire travel and tourism economy would be devastating for sure.”