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‘It is not go time’: City councillors express concern over reopening economy

Last Updated May 6, 2020 at 6:12 am MDT

CALGARY (660 NEWS) — There’s a chance many Alberta businesses could be welcoming customers back inside their establishments later this month, but it is not coming without any concerns.

During a committee meeting at Calgary City Hall on Tuesday, the mayor and several councillors expressed their worries that the provincial relaunch plan is a bit premature.

The province is proposing a three-phase relaunch, beginning as early as May 14th when most businesses can open up again with some restrictions.

Other measures have already taken place, such as allowing people back into provincial park staging areas and reopening golf courses.

The government said in its outline that the first phase will not take place until more testing has been established and there is a sustained decline in infections, among other requirements.

But there was a feeling during the Tuesday meeting that there still is not enough information about how business owners should be responding.

“I was told on Friday that the provincial government would be creating guidebooks for each sector on what was needed and they would be basing that on some stuff out of the province of Manitoba. However, I understand yesterday there was a call with some 2,000 people representing different sectors asking lots of questions about their own businesses and that at that call, each sector was told to develop your own best practices and run them by public health and we’ll tell you if they’re okay or not, and no further guidebooks are coming from the province,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

Nenshi said he is “not pleased” about the prospect of the sectors being left up to their own devices on developing mandates, and clear direction needs to come from the province.

There already seems to be issues, as Calgary Emergency Management Agency Chief Tom Sampson told council that some businesses are already jumping the gun and they have inspectors out to make sure nobody is at risk.

“Some businesses are pushing the limits,” he said.

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A local task force will be given the job of engaging with the businesses directly in the event there is no further provincial guidance, and they can help establish best practices.

“Hopefully they can learn from some of those businesses that have been operating right through this time, those essential businesses,” Sampson added.

Nenshi said when he talked to some business owners, there is a consensus that they are not sure of what to do next and how they should actually be operating, leading him to believe this is being rushed.

“These are questions that have not yet been answered, and it is critical that we have answers to every one of these questions before May 14, otherwise we are doing Albertans a disservice,” he said.

“It is not go time.”

Councillor Dianne Colley-Urquhart, who has decades of experience in the healthcare sector, echoed Nenshi’s concerns.

“May 14th is a no go. We are not ready,” she said.

“We’ve been so good at keeping the barn door closed, that now we’re going to be put in a position if we don’t stop this, with the barn door open at the back, and then businesses have to close again once this thing takes off on us again.”

There is certainly a common sentiment that they want businesses to reopen and start providing more financial stability to the economy, but there could be more long-term pain if the process isn’t carried out carefully.

“The reopening is not happening because the COVID crisis is ending,” said Nenshi, “the reopening is happening because there’s room in the ICU for you.”

“I think we need to be more worried about the life of our citizens, and so we have to find that balance,” added Sampson.

Nenshi said one thing that may be required is a province-wide directive on wearing masks, although the research on that is disputed.

Sampson referred to information from British Columbia that found physical distancing remains the most important method in reducing the spread of COVID-19, while personal protective equipment alone is not enough.

Therefore, they agreed that simply more data needs to come from the province so they aren’t left behind asking these types of questions.

“It’s a pandemic,” said Councillor Jyoti Gondek, “I think it’s important for the people that govern public health and safety to come out with the recommendations and then instill them as requirements.”

Businesses themselves are also confused and worried about the situation, as they can’t risk a scenario where any gains made are cancelled out.

“Emotions are high,” said Adrian Urlacher, Executive Director of the Beltline Business Improvement Area.

“We have some businesses that are incredibly excited to be reopening and really fit the bill for this. But I think our front services like hair salons and businesses like that, that are going to be allowed to open, are still waiting to see what the restrictions are going to be. How they need to react, how they need to operate.”

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For Urlacher, his association is in a unique position as the Beltline BIA was formed very recently and they are still trying to get a footing among the community while also responding to an ongoing crisis.

They have also organized weekly Beltline balcony bashes, with music playing from the rooftop of Broken City and residents in the community urged to order takeout from restaurants.

One thing he has learned already is that business owners are incredibly resilient and they continue to learn on the fly, including by adapting their operations through the adoption of pickup or takeout services.

“I think until the policies and rules and regulations are rolled out, we’re not going to have a true understanding of how that business is going to look and I think those first couple of days or first weekend where they are operating with these restrictions in place, that will be the telltale for where they go from here.”

Nenshi made it clear again on Tuesday that even if the May 14 target is hit, there is no obligation to open up your business — just like there is no obligation for Calgarians to rush out and pack into those businesses.

He said it is key for everyone to go at their own pace, and has promised more supports for businesses going forward in addition to other local, provincial or federal measures taken.

Sampson added that it’s better to take a “start low and go slow” approach, and Urlacher said his BIA is working with other business groups in downtown Calgary to find the best options. Overall, they are just learning together while hoping for the best.

“This has been one of the craziest times ever.”