THUNDER BAY – The head of the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce says Ontario’s new public health restrictions on businesses need to be accompanied by more financial supports and a clear plan to rein in the Omicron variant.
Chamber president Charla Robinson said she understands the need for the new measures announced Monday, saying Omicron presents a massive challenge for governments across the world.
Restrictions impacting businesses include the closure of indoor dining, theatres, and recreation facilities including gyms, 50 per cent capacity limits for stores, shopping malls, and personal care services, and a requirement to ensure employees work remotely if possible.
The government also limited gathering sizes and moved schools online for at least two weeks in its bid to avoid overwhelming hospitals with Omicron cases.
The restrictions will be “a tough pill to swallow” for many businesses, Robinson said, after it appeared that mass vaccination might put an end to nearly two years of off-and-on closures and capacity limits.
Many local small business owners no longer have much in the way of financial reserves to weather continued closures, she said.
The government has said the restrictions are intended to be time-limited, and could expire as soon as Jan. 26. The next steps need to be made clear well before that deadline, Robinson said.
“We’ve heard many times that these types of changes were only going to last for two or three weeks, and then the day before, we’re told that plan has changed again,” she said. “Clarity is really important to help businesses plan, help their employees plan, and help make sure they can do whatever they can to reduce their overhead costs to bridge the gap.”
Crucially, Robinson said, she’s looking to see what the government will do to ensure a safe reopening at the end of those three weeks. She’s hoping for action on rapid testing, booster vaccine coverage, and financial supports for businesses over that time.
Worker shortages due to infections and exposures are already becoming an issue, she said, one that’s exacerbated by testing shortages.
“There’s a provincewide shortage [of rapid tests], but we still have businesses with employees who have to go into work, and they don’t know if they’re asymptomatically spreading… potentially shutting down that workplace because everybody gets sick,” she said.
She also questioned how the province plans to expand uptake of booster vaccine doses, which health authorities have called the most crucial step to get Omicron under control.
“We need to have more of those kinds of actual plans revealed, and not, ‘we’ll tell you in a few weeks where things are at,’” she said.
According to health unit data, 36,823 Thunder Bay district residents had received three doses of the vaccine as of Jan. 1.
Robinson was more assured by announcements of renewed financial supports.
In December, the federal government expanded the Local Lockdown Program, and extended it through Feb. 12, in response to the Omicron variant. The program provides wage and rent subsidies of between 25 and 75 per cent for businesses that see monthly revenues fall by 25 per cent or more.
The province also announced an expansion to its new Ontario Business Costs Rebate Program on Monday. The program will refund 50 per cent of property taxes and energy costs paid by businesses while under 50 per cent capacity restrictions, and a full rebate for those required to close.
Robinson said she’s still waiting for details.
“Unfortunately, it’s not open yet, so we don’t know how long the application process is going to be, we don’t exactly know who will be eligible, so there are a lot of questions,” she said. “That’s a real disappointment – when you announce a closure or capacity restrictions, you need to have the programs in place right away for supports, and once again that hasn’t happened.”
More information on public health restrictions is available online.
Some of the major new measures impacting businesses include:
- Retail settings, including shopping malls, permitted at 50 per cent capacity. For shopping malls physical distancing will be required in line-ups, loitering will not be permitted and food courts will be required to close.
- Closing indoor dining at restaurants, bars and other food or drink establishments. Outdoor dining, takeout, and delivery permitted.
- Closing indoor concert venues, theatres, cinemas
- Closing indoor sport and recreational fitness facilities including gyms, except for athletes training for the Olympics and Paralympics and select professional and elite amateur sport leagues. Outdoor facilities are permitted to operate but with the number of spectators not to exceed 50 per cent occupancy and other requirements.
- Restricting the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. and the consumption of alcohol on-premise in businesses or settings after 11 p.m. with delivery and takeout, grocery/convenience stores and other liquor stores exempted.
- Requiring businesses and organizations to ensure employees work remotely unless the nature of their work requires them to be on-site
- Personal care services permitted at 50 per cent capacity and other restrictions. Saunas closed.
- Closing indoor meeting and event spaces with limited exceptions