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If you open it, they may or may not come.
If we've learned anything about the much-anticipated, much-debated reopening of the Manitoba economy, it is that the pace at which Premier Brian Pallister wants us to go is not necessarily the pace at which everyone is prepared to go.
At the beginning of this month, Pallister unveiled Phase 1 of the reopening strategy which allowed a wide range of businesses and facilities to resume operation. Some of them — hair salons, restaurant patios, elective surgery and some health services (physiotherapy) — were quick to take advantage of the easing of restrictions.
Others, not so much.
Museums, art galleries and libraries were simply not ready to reopen. Some did, like the Winnipeg Art Gallery, but others (Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the Manitoba Museum and City of Winnipeg libraries) remained closed while they draft plans for a safe and orderly return to normal business.
The same goes for private businesses. Retailers were allowed to reopen with conditions but not all have taken advantage of the easing of restrictions. At the big shopping malls, some stores are open but many national chains remain closed.
The uneven response to Phase 1 is proof that even if you give people the green light to resume normal activities, not everyone is ready. And for a variety of reasons.
Many businesses are still formulating plans to safely protect their employees and customers. Many customers are simply not willing to risk possible COVID-19 infection to do things that they have learned to live without for months now.
The slow uptake on Phase 1 has raised questions about whether we'll be ready to take advantage of Phase 2.
As outlined this week, Phase 2 permits almost every business and facility in the province to reopen — with limits on occupancy — except for casinos, theatres, amusement parks and large sports and culture venues. There is no specific date yet for Phase 2 to take effect; Pallister is consulting with business and trade groups to determine exactly when we should move to the next stage of economic resumption.
Regardless of what date is picked, there are two schools of thought on what might happen next.
Some believe that whenever the date is set, there will be a faster, more enthusiastic uptake by businesses or facilities allowed to open under Phase 2.
The uneven response to Phase 1 is proof that even if you give people the green light to resume normal activities, not everyone is ready.
Those that will be allowed to reopen in this second stage will take comfort from the experiences of those that resumed business in Phase 1. And let's remember that those early adopters in Phase 1 were starved of detailed guidelines on what they needed to do to safely reopen; the province did not issue detailed health and safety guidelines on things like the use of Personal Protective Equipment in private businesses for several days after the May 4 reopening date.
For Phase 2, the province came armed with pages upon pages of guidelines to help businesses and facilities plan ahead for a reopening. And by not setting a specific date, Pallister and public health officials have ensured there will be more lead time.
However, for this phase to be successful, we will have to overcome the nagging concerns that may derail both phases of reopening.
Phase 2 cannot succeed if the people who work in the businesses and facilities targeted for reopening do not feel safe returning. Pallister is taking time to consult with business and trade groups but is not meeting with labour and that leaves the premier with a false sense of confidence about our ability to resume economic activity.
Not every affected worker belongs to a union, but many will. It is certainly incumbent on the premier and anyone else who wants to expedite the economic revival to get the perspective of workers. Businesses that rely on minimum-wage employees may find it difficult to get them to put aside concerns about their health and resume working at restaurants, shops and service-oriented businesses.
There is also the issue of consumer enthusiasm. Many of us have become so used to online ordering and either home delivery or curbside pick-up that we may be reluctant to actually visit a store in person. That is a real concern for smaller businesses that do not have the resources for a full-fledged e-commerce platform or the facilities to allow curbside service.
The final consideration is whether certain business can remain viable while operating with continued social distancing and limiting the number of patrons to no more than 50 per cent of normal capacity. These limitations may make it pointless for some businesses to reopen, particularly restaurants. We've already seen several long-standing restaurants close up shop rather than try to operate under the new normal required to keep COVID-19 in check.
Workers and customers alike need to be convinced that reopening safe and, right now, we don't have enough data on the impact of a resumption of economic activity on the transmission rates. Some jurisdictions that have restarted their economies, or those that avoided wholesale economic lockdown, are experiencing upticks in new COVID-19. Others seem to have dodged that bullet.
All Manitobans want Pallister's broad and ambitious reopening plan to work. But the premier may find there are challenges at work here that go well beyond the setting of deadlines and the issuance of guidelines.
Somehow, we need to be convinced that we are safe. And no one is exactly sure when that is going to happen.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
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