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NWT businesses await guidance on how restrictions will change

Last modified: October 20, 2021 at 9:44am


Two days from a widely anticipated shift to new Covid-19 restrictions in the NWT, businesses are being told they’ll have enough time to adapt.

The territory is scheduled to introduce rules on Friday that let businesses admit more people if they agree to check customers’ vaccination status on entry, allowing only fully vaccinated people or those who can’t yet be vaccinated (like young children).

But the tight nature of that timeline is unnerving for some businesses who wonder what they’ll have to do once the rules change.

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Phoenix Smith is the director of Bella Dance Academy, which teaches children in Yellowknife how to dance. She remains unsure how businesses like hers – working primarily with an unvaccinated population – will be affected.

“Our biggest concern is that about 85 percent of our students are under 12,” Smith told Cabin Radio. 

Adze Christensen, nine, watches instructor Phoenix Smith during a Zoom dance class
Adze Christensen, nine, watches instructor Phoenix Smith during a Zoom dance class. Photo: Jocelyn Christensen

“We can put some things into place where we do require proof of vaccine for all of our over-12 students, but it still leaves our other children vulnerable at the studio.”

The NWT’s chief public health officer, Dr Kami Kandola, says the new rules will set indoor capacity at a maximum of 25 without vaccination verification in place. That increases to 100 if a business decides to check vaccination status on entry.

But that leaves Smith in a quandary. If all of her clients are aged under 12, does that mean Bella Dance’s capacity is 25, or can it go up to 100 even if all 100 are under 12?

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Full guidance has yet to be issued. The NWT government has scheduled a Covid-19 briefing for 2pm on Wednesday, though the extent to which that briefing will address the rules for businesses is not clear.

Smith worries that as the rules change, existing exemptions for businesses will expire. But the process for securing new exemptions has yet to be communicated.

“Can we expect to get this new process, have time to submit an application, and get a response back before Friday at 5pm?” Smith asked, citing the time at which the rules are expected to change.

“Or will we need to close again while we wait for a new exemption?”

Richard Makohoniuk, a spokesperson for the NWT government’s Covid-19 Secretariat, said Dr Kandola’s office was “working to publicize the new order in a timely manner so that businesses are aware of the new operating environment and have some lead time to apply for a new exemption.”

The process was still being finalized as the week began, Makohoniuk said by email, adding businesses would not have to close but may have to follow the 25-person limit until an exemption is secured.

He said restrictions for businesses dealing with youth would depend on the activity and whether organizers can “provide an environment that mitigates and minimizes the risk to children.”

“There is a continued need to cocoon children and youth under the age of 12 from a Covid-19 outbreak,” he wrote.

More: GNWT Q&A (select “proof of vaccination for gatherings” from the menu)

Over the course of the pandemic, Smith – whose business just won the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce’s workplace safety award – says Bella Dance Academy has “found lots of different ways to pivot.”

With dance considered a high-risk activity, the studio had to adopt new protocols with each updated health order. Changes Smith described included hybrid classes for families who wanted to keep their kids at home, asking parents to wait outside the studio, and introducing a Covid-19 “traffic light” on Bella Dance’s website that changes colour to signal changes at the studio. 

“If it meant that we couldn’t be in the studio, we changed the light to red. If they were to sort-of proceed with caution, it would be yellow, and green was fully in person,” Smith said.

“It still continues to be incredibly important to be able to reassure parents that we’re doing everything that we can to have a safe environment for their kiddos.”

Makohoniuk said parents and guardians must make decisions based on their determination of what qualifies as “acceptable risk.”

A vaccine has not yet been approved in Canada for the under-12 age group, though Health Canada is now evaluating a submission from Pfizer-BioNTech.

Makohoniuk said Kandola’s office “is following the approval process closely and our team at the NWT Health and Social Services Authority is preparing to deliver this vaccine program as quickly as possible once it is approved.” 

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