South Shore businesses struggling to balance safety with survival

·6 min read

It’s no secret that restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic have been taxing for many South Shore businesses.

Owners of numerous small businesses have found it tough to hold their heads above water and, for many, the strict health protocols have meant the death knell of their hopes and dreams.

A lot of businesses in Nova Scotia operate within the tourism industry and rely heavily on visitors from other parts of the country during the summer tourism season to keep them afloat for the rest of the year. Travel restrictions in place for the past 14 months have closed the door on any significant number of people arriving from the U.S. or the rest of Canada.

So what are they doing about it and how do they feel about the province’s approach and initiatives amid the pandemic?

A group of more than 110 influential companies and individuals in the business industry, including Sean O’Regan, president and CEO of O’Regan Motors Ltd., Dr. Ricardo Rendon of Halifax and Jon Stanfield, president and CEO of Stanfield’s Limited, set out to clear the pathway to a more positive horizon for the province’s business community. Together, they formed the lobby group, the Nova Scotia Business Alliance, to try and push the government to get things moving forward.

The group sent a letter to Premier Iain Rankin on May 30, urging the government to open the province’s borders. According to Robert Zed, a spokesperson for the alliance, the effort was a success.

That the province announced it would be opening up the so-called Atlantic Bubble, allowing in visitors from other Atlantic provinces without the need for them to self-quarantine, was “100 per cent … a result of the letter,” said Zed, who is the chair and CEO of Triangle Strategies, a company that provides management consulting services in the Canadian health care industry.

“The scheduled June 23 to open up the bubble and adopting that was definitely part of our request. Our request was for clarity and a tourism incentive. We would definitely say we would have influence on these decisions.”

“This is about small businesses around the province that are suffering. The rest of the world is moving forward and Nova Scotia seems to be stalled,” Zed commented “We are very concerned about public health, but this seems to be about political games that are being played and positioning for the next election.” Opening of the Atlantic Bubble was not scheduled until later in the month or early in July.

As an additional life-preserver for the tourism industry, on June 15 the government announced it was making available $18.2 billion in assistance for tourism business operators.

Meanwhile, many business owners on the South Shore say that safety for themselves and their customers is paramount and they agree, in part, with how things have gone; others think it’s time to open to full capacity to ensure their survival.

“I personally am not a fan of early opening in Nova Scotia and the reason for that is because it is a deadly disease and we have no idea if the person you are talking to is truly telling the truth whether they’ve been vaccinated or not,” said Mark Reynolds of Reynolds Pharmasave in Liverpool.

“I’ve taken a very Draconian approach here in my store. All of my staff have to wear heavy-duty masking and they get tested once a week.”

This thought is echoed by Bill Flower, owner of Lunenburg Ocean Adventures.

“I 100 per cent agree with the slow rollout for the safety of the general public. For that, I am willing to take a hit,” he said. “I really believe that Dr. [Robert] Strang [NS chief medical officer] has done a wonderful job. ”

On the flip side of the coin, Terry Baker, owner of the Admiral Benbow gift shop in Lunenburg, doesn’t think a lot of businesses can survive much longer without people around to buy their wares.

“Last year our sales were down 85 to 90 per cent. Going forward, I can’t see how many businesses can survive if we can’t get the rest of Canada here to come and not have to self-isolate,” he said.

Normally Baker’s store opens in April. Last year, the opening was delayed until July 6, and this year to June 5. The store stays open until the end of October and sometimes late in November.

“The only thing that frustrates me a little bit…COVID-19 is not going away. For a lack of a better expression, I think it is replacing the flu, so I think they probably need to learn how to live and deal with it. If you follow the protocols you should be okay,” he said.

Linda Smith, owner of Memories Cafe in Liverpool, notes her future relies on tourism.

“We have either been closed or generally operating at a loss since the start of the pandemic. Supports have either been insufficient and communication has been limited,” she lamented in an email. “We are grateful that we have been able to hang on so far, but our future definitely remains uncertain.”

According to Smith, it’s her employees and her customer base that have been keeping the business going.

“We need to be able to serve at 100 per cent and we need guests coming in from across the country. There is a very limited amount of time left to salvage this season and bring in enough funds to prepare for the off-season,” she said.

Nonetheless, she said her opinions as a restaurant owner trying to save her business “pale in comparison to the efforts made to keep Nova Scotians safe and healthy. That does have to be the first priority.”

Jamie Myra, the president of the Lunenburg Board of Trade and owner of Stan’s Dad and Lad Shop in the town, commented in an email that “once we get to a certain level of vaccinations we need to open things up, with restrictions, but open things up.”

Still, he favours a cautious approach. “Our fear is that people will refuse to get vaccinated and we get a fourth wave in the fall. Quite frankly, most of us can’t handle a fourth wave, both financially and mentally.”

Alex Finigan, of Woods Wise Outfitters in Oakhill, said “it’s time to ramp up vaccinations. If they are available we should be running clinics 24/7. This is a financial, as well as a health crisis, and should be treated as such. Social distancing, masking and sanitizing works if people follow the rules.”

Andrew Tanner of King Street Beer Company in Bridgewater opined, “the easing of border opening, based on where we are currently, versus waiting longer, is certainly something we would like to see. We appreciate a ‘science-based’ approach, but we are progressing faster and should see some easing.”

At the time of writing, Nova Scotia was in Phase 2 of the re-opening plan. Restaurants and bars were open for indoor service, albeit with social distancing, and retail stores were open to 50 per cent capacity. The Atlantic Bubble was expected to re-open for Nova Scotia June 23, and, on June 30 in Phase 3, retail stores can operate at a 75 per cent capacity. Amid Phase 4, expected July 14, retailers can operate at maximum capacity and restaurants can open for regular operations.

Kevin McBain, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, LighthouseNOW Progress Bulletin

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