YK chamber calls for ‘more nuanced response’ to Covid-19
The president of Yellowknife’s Chamber of Commerce says recent work from home orders and sweeping gathering limits, along with ongoing travel restrictions in the Northwest Territories, have had “dire consequences” for local businesses.
Rob Warburton laid out his concerns in a public letter, which was first published by NNSL on Wednesday. He called for immediate action from territorial leaders to end border restrictions and move to a case-by-case approach when it comes to responding to Covid-19 outbreaks.
“It’s been really hard hearing someone sob on the phone because they’ve got no customers coming,” Warburton told Cabin Radio on Thursday. “I know it may feel very abstract to layers of government and if folks aren’t impacted, aren’t business owners, but it is very bad out there.”
Business owners say they have been hit harder by public health restrictions over the past month than those at the start of the pandemic, Warburton said, as there aren’t the same accompanying supports. Some downtown businesses have seen 60 to 70 percent declines in revenue, he added.
“It’s catostrophic,” Warburton said. “They’ve refinanced themselves, they’ve remortgaged houses. There’s no more gas in the tank.”
Following a wave of Omicron infections, the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer enacted temporary restrictions in early January, limiting gatherings, banning high-risk indoor activities, and recommending that many people work and study from home. Some of those restrictions were lifted over the weekend.
Warburton said he believes there are tools in place for the territory to take a “more nuanced response” to Covid-19 like vaccine mandates, antiviral drugs, and at-home rapid tests. He pointed out public health officials have said workplaces are not high-risk environments for Covid-19, and infections among students are now being handled without shutting down schools.
“If we just keep down this response where every time there’s an outbreak we shut down, send home all our workers and we shut down our schools, you’re just going to have no businesses anymore downtown,” he said.
“I just don’t see how it’s defensible anymore.”
The Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce has teamed up with the territorial government and City of Yellowknife on a new initiative to try and help support Yellowknife’s food and beverage industry.
Between February 7 to 20, under the Get Out & Eat shop local initiative, anyone who spends at least $20 before tax and gratuity at any restaurant, bar or café in Yellowknife can upload their receipts to the Aurora Coupons App for the chance to win prizes.
‘Tourism is toast’
Warburton said a long-standing ban on leisure travel in the territory has hit tourism operators especially hard with many losing irreplaceable staff and selling off assets. He said he doesn’t understand why the NWT is the only territory that has continued to keep such strict travel measures in place.
“Tourism is toast,” he said. “[It’s] going to be years to rebuild any semblance of tourism in the city.”
The NWT government delayed plans to welcome tourists back in December due to rising case numbers.
Rylund Johnson, the MLA for Yellowknife North, and Katrina Nokleby, the MLA for Great Slave, have publicly called for a firm date on when borders will be re-opened to tourists.
The territory’s deputy chief public health officer, Dr André Corriveau, told CBC on Thursday morning there are plans to re-open the territory to leisure travel, but the Omicron wave must pass first. He said the territory is less concerned about travellers bringing Covid-19 to the NWT, than the impact an increasing number of cases could have on the healthcare system.
“The plan is there to re-open, it’s just that we want to pass this wave because our system is very fragile,” he said.
Territorial medical director Dr AnneMarie Pegg has similarly said while hospitalizations during the Omicron wave have been proportionally lower than earlier Covid-19 outbreaks, the sheer number of cases is having serious consequences for the NWT’s healthcare system and other critical infrastructure. She acknowledged, however, that people need to shift their thinking toward living with Covid-19 and taking personal responsibility for risk mitigation.
Health minister Julie Green told reporters last week that the territorial government is hoping to end its Covid-19 public health emergency this spring, moving away from the use of public health orders to manage the pandemic.
Warburton said he’s pleased the territory’s “mentality is shifting,” but warned that time is running out for many businesses.
“There’s some pretty dire consequences in the next couple of weeks. It’s not like we have months anymore,” he said.
Protests and debates
Other NWT residents have called for changes to public health measures, but not everyone agrees on how to best manage the risks of Covid-19.
Some residents in Yellowknife, Fort Smith and Hay River have held protests in recent weeks calling for the end of Covid-19 restrictions, including vaccine mandates.
The Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, has been supportive of the territory’s decision to allow businesses to implement proof of vaccination requirements and many businesses and municipalities have chosen to do so.
Before Yellowknife councillors narrowly approved requiring proof of vaccination to enter city facilities in November, more than 300 residents wrote to city council on the issue. City manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said there was roughly an even split between those for and against the policy.