Business closures, delays and postponements in Halifax as COVID-19 keeps staff off the job

The alarming increase in COVID-19 infections is causing staffing shortages for employers throughout the Halifax region. (David Laughlin/CBC - image credit)
The alarming increase in COVID-19 infections is causing staffing shortages for employers throughout the Halifax region. (David Laughlin/CBC - image credit)

The rapid spread of COVID-19 over the past week is creating staffing challenges at businesses and services in the Halifax region as increasing numbers of employees are being affected by the outbreak.

In addition to those testing positive for COVID-19, many others are staying home from work having been identified as close contacts of known cases.

That's led to a reduced workforce for some of the region's biggest employers, including the Halifax Regional Municipality, which is reporting service disruptions at Halifax Transit as a result.

The municipality confirmed in a statement to CBC News it has been dealing with delays over the past few days "due to transit operators following Public Health protocols and recommendations related to COVID-19."

The statement said that ferry service is expected to be impacted over the coming weeks because of uncertainty over operators and crew members.

Bars and restaurants take another hit

On Thursday, the province reported 287 new cases of COVID-19 — the highest number of new cases announced in one day since the pandemic arrived in Nova Scotia. Of those new cases, 191 were in the central zone, which includes HRM.

Already facing tighter restrictions that come into effect Friday, bars and restaurants in the area are having to endure even more pain with a number of them closing temporarily due to positive tests.

In a social media post Wednesday, the Pint Public House on Argyle Street said it would close for at least 24 hours after several staff tested positive for COVID-19.

La Frasca on Spring Garden Road issued a similar notice explaining it was closing to allow staff to get tested after one of their colleagues tested positive.

Patrick Callaghan/CBC
Patrick Callaghan/CBC

At CFB Halifax, between 500 and 1,000 employees have been taking advantage of weekly rapid testing offered on site. The base employs about 10,000 people.

"We're tracking 32 confirmed cases across our defence population," said Capt. Sean Williams, the base commander.

He said approximately 200 other people have been identified as a close contact and are self-isolating while they await PCR tests.

A cautious approach

Williams explained that operations are continuing without issues with the ability for many people to work remotely.

Holiday social events that had been planned were cancelled, and while there is concern about case numbers, strict protocols remain in place to give people confidence at work, he said.

"We are being very careful and watching it really closely and taking the necessary steps to make sure it doesn't get worse than it is," Williams said.

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

Nova Scotia Health expects to be dealing with some shortages as the number of infections continues to rise, but it is still getting a handle on the situation.

"We expect there will be an impact on staffing, and our focus will be on maintaining services for Nova Scotians and protecting the health and safety of our workforce," the health authority said in a statement.

Calls for help to save local businesses

There are genuine fears some businesses might not get through the next few months with the coronavirus spreading so quickly.

"Frankly, it's going to be a long, cold winter," said Patrick Sullivan, the CEO of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce.

Sullivan is calling on the provincial and federal governments to step up and support local businesses before it's too late.

"There are businesses that will close in January and February for sure unless there is support available to cover some of the losses that they're experiencing," he said, pointing to the hospitality industry as being particularly vulnerable.

Premier Tim Houston said his government understands the situation and will respond.

"We're going to do whatever we can to support them. We know this is a hard time, particularly this time of year with the amount of business they would have had on the books," Houston said, adding a COVID-19 relief fund run by Dalhousie University remains an option.

Music festival postponed for 2nd time

While businesses put contingencies in place to keep their workplaces going, those involved in live events with large gatherings have little option but to cancel.

The Big Comeback music festival was supposed to be a celebration of getting back to normal, with 16 acts booked over two days at the Marquee Ballroom and Seahorse Tavern on Gottingen Street.

But as soon as restrictions were announced, the event planned for Friday and Saturday was postponed.

"It wasn't possible to throw this type of event, so we decided to postpone," said event organizer Charlie Benoit. "It's a large indoor event with between 500 to 1,000 people inside, so it wasn't permitted. It was one of the things that would have to get cut right away."

It's the second time Benoit has had to put off the event because of COVID-19, so he's now hoping to reschedule for early next year.

"It's a bit disappointing that it couldn't happen right yet, but at some point it will," he said.

It's unclear how long the newest restrictions will be in place. Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, has said the situation will be reassessed in January.