Lift lockdown outside St. John's, urge business owners across N.L.

·4 min read
Tash Noble, owner of Tash's Studio in Corner Brook, says the west coast of Newfoundland is in a much different place when it comes to COVID-19 case counts.  (Colleen Connors/CBC - image credit)
Tash Noble, owner of Tash's Studio in Corner Brook, says the west coast of Newfoundland is in a much different place when it comes to COVID-19 case counts. (Colleen Connors/CBC - image credit)

Business owners across the province are urging the chief medical officer of health to consider a regional reopening of the province, and lift the Alert Level 5 lockdown for all areas outside of the metro St. John's region.

The Gander and Area Chamber of Commerce — which represents 300 businesses — posted its letter to Dr. Janice Fitzgerald publicly Wednesday night, asking for areas outside the Northeast Avalon to be moved into Alert Level 3. The letter comes just ahead of Fitzgerald's Friday deadline for an update on a two-week provincial lockdown first announced on Feb. 13.

While most businesses made it through last spring's lockdown, the chamber's chair told CBC News, they never fully recovered and the second wave of restrictions has proved far rougher than the first. The chamber letter is a result of a flood of those concerns.

"The problem we're hearing from our members is that, this is bad this time. And they don't know if they're going to make it through," said Sheldon Handcock.

Gander itself has taken a hard hit in the last year, as the core industry in the town — aviation — has been pummelled by the pandemic, with its airport losing Air Canada entirely in January.

Gander and Area Chamber of Commerce Chair Sheldon Handcock, seen here during a Zoom interview with CBC, says he hopes Dr. Janice Fitzgerald takes a regional approach to reopening businesses.
Gander and Area Chamber of Commerce Chair Sheldon Handcock, seen here during a Zoom interview with CBC, says he hopes Dr. Janice Fitzgerald takes a regional approach to reopening businesses.

As of Thursday, only eight of the 335 active cases are outside the Eastern Health region, four of them in central Newfoundland.

"Our numbers are low. We know that the threat is still there, we know the virus can move rapidly, but we would like to have the island assessed more granularly," Handcock said, pointing to New Brunswick as a prime example where public health officials have shuffled various regions of its province in and out of alert stages in the last few months.

Under provincial guidelines, Alert Level 3 allows for retail stores and restaurants to reopen with restrictions. So too can personal care services such as hair salons, barber shops and estheticians, although other segments of society, like fitness centres and movie theatres, remain closed.

'If I do not work, I don't make any money'

Tash Noble, the owner of Tash's Studio in Corner Brook, agrees with Handcock's points.

"Coronavirus is a very serious virus, but if it's not here in this area, we should start alleviating some of the restrictions," she told CBC News on Thursday.

Noble said while some businesses can pivot to online sales or curbside pickup, hair, nail and waxing services obviously cannot.

Business owners outside St. John's are hoping they will get the go ahead to flip their signs to 'Open.'
Business owners outside St. John's are hoping they will get the go ahead to flip their signs to 'Open.'

"If I do not work, I don't make any money," she said.

"We're still recovering from last year ... Bills still keep coming out. They shut down our business, but Newfoundland Power doesn't shut down, the rent doesn't shut down."

In an update on Thursday, the provincial government announced the new extended deadline of March 11 for applicants to apply for financial help under the small business assistance program. So far, 3,130 applications have been approved.

A safe reopening

The current lockdown in Newfoundland and Labrador involves a particularly contagious variant of the coronavirus — with confirmation of the B117 variant spurring public health to move all of the province to Alert Level 5 — and Handcock commended Fitzgerald's actions thus far, calling her "a rock star."

But he said he hopes she is looking at a different reopening from last spring, when the entire province moved in lockstep into freer forms of public life, although whatever reopening looks like Handcock said needed to keep public health top of mind.

"If there can be safe way that business can open and the economy can resume, that's what we're hoping for," he said, looking toward Friday's announcement, about which no hints thus far have been given, with Fitzgerald only saying any reopening with the variant in play will involve limited personal interactions.

Adding to the chamber of commerce's economic argument, Handcock said, is a medical one: all regional health authorities have put off routine hospital appointments, and he worried about the possibility of backlogs like those seen last spring. Those could be avoided, he said, in at least some areas of the province if there was a regional re-opening.

"People need bloodwork, people need to have certain surgeries, people need to get these appointments, and it's a tough time," he said.

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