Baby steps toward restarting our economy

Austria, Denmark and Germany have begun to unfreeze sectors. And Saskatchewan has laid out a cautious four-phase approach

By Jock Finlayson
and Denise Mullen
Business Council of British Columbia

The Great Suppression, the widespread shutdown of most non-essential economic and social activity across much of the world, is both a lived experience and experiment like few others in human history.

Jock Finlayson
Jock Finlayson

There have been three other worldwide pandemics in the 20th century – 1918 (Spanish flu), 1957 (Asian flu) and 1968 (Hong Kong flu). But COVID-19 is unique because of the speed of spread and the concentrated economic impact.

The lockdowns can’t continue indefinitely. Restarting economies is critical to minimize business destruction, and retain and restore as many jobs as possible.

As Winston Churchill once said: “It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”

It’s necessary to kick-start shattered economies as soon as it’s reasonably safe to do so.

Denise Mullen
Denise Mullen

Some European nations are taking steps in this direction, although there’s no single playbook that will work everywhere. Much depends on the extent of COVID-19 infections, the capacity for testing and tracing, and social norms.

Austria and Denmark have begun to unfreeze a few sectors, with Germany poised to follow suit. All are reopening many retail businesses beyond grocery stores and pharmacies – including clothing and shoe stores, hardware stores, beauty salons, car dealerships and bookstores. They are also planning to resume primary and elementary school education by early May.

Governments rightly are cautious about moving too quickly, given how easily COVID-19 is transmitted and the risk of another surge in the fall. Most jurisdictions will be very slow to permit large gatherings of people for any purpose.

And in most cases, public health authorities are imposing social distancing and other hygiene rules of varying stringency on the businesses and other organizations that are permitted to operate.

How fast these baby steps will translate to walking at full gait is uncertain. Even after the rules now constraining economic and social activity are relaxed, there could be a return to sporadic business closures if new waves of the virus reappear.

A huge unknown is when or even if an effective vaccine will be available.

As policy-makers across Canada ponder next steps, they may want to study Saskatchewan’s economic reopening plan, released on April 24. Saskatchewan has had relatively few COVID-19 cases, creating favourable conditions for relaxing its social distancing restrictions.

Saskatchewan has outlined four main phases for reopening its economy.

By May 4, parks, golf courses, and fishing and boating businesses will reopen. At the same time, the public will be able to access several previously restricted health services (e.g., dentistry, optometry and occupational therapy), albeit with additional safety and hygiene precautions in place.

By May 19, presently closed retail stores can turn the lights back on and selected “personal services” businesses can also reopen (e.g., barbers/hairdressers and message therapists). However, all of these businesses will be required to follow strict social distancing guidelines or, where physical distancing isn’t possible, use protective equipment (gloves, masks, etc.).

Phase three will see the reopening of remaining personal services, such as nail and tanning salons, along with restaurants, bars, fitness facilities and child-care centres. However, public and private gatherings will be limited to 15 people.

No target date is specified for this third stage. Saskatchewan health officials presumably will make a decision based on the success of the initial phases of the reopening plan and whether the number of COVID-19 cases is under control.

In phase four, indoor and outdoor recreation and entertainment facilities will reopen, and public gatherings of up to 30 people will be allowed. Again, however, no date is specified. It’s hard to imagine this stage being reached until much later in the year, at the earliest.

Overall, Saskatchewan’s phased approach seems sensible. But even if it’s successful, the post-pandemic ‘new normal’ will not look the same as what we have become used to.

Large gatherings of more than 50 people, for any reason, are likely to be prohibited for a long time. International travel will be less common and less convenient. There will fewer foreign students attending our educational institutions. More cautious citizens will follow different physical distancing norms in their day-to-day activities.

And many more people can be expected to work from home, reducing the amount of business travel and dampening the demand for office space in cities across the country.

Jock Finlayson is executive vice-president and Denise Mullen director of Environment and Sustainability with the Business Council of British Columbia.

Jock and Denise are Troy Media Thought Leaders. Why aren’t you?

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