The head of the Business Council of Canada is urging Ottawa and the provinces to coordinate re-opening rules and bring down provincial barriers to capitalize on what he views as success in the first phase of combatting the coronavirus pandemic.
In an interview with the Financial Post, Goldy Hyder warned that missing the opportunity to carefully ease travel and business restrictions where virus rates are relatively low will result in companies going under, most likely in sectors such as travel, tourism, and hospitality, putting many Canadians out of work permanently.
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Travel restrictions across the country — both inter-provincial and international — were a key reason Rocky Mountaineer, which offers train adventures through British Columbia and Alberta to tourist destinations including Banff, recently extended its closure through Aug. 30, said Hyder.
“If a hotel chain or the Rocky Mountaineer goes bust, or god forbid an airline … you’re going to have to take care of even more people,” he said, adding that government programs paying Canadians not to work and subsidizing wages and rents are not sustainable for the year or more it could take to develop and produce a safe and effective vaccine.
“I’m concerned we’re going to end up in a place where we have to subsidize even more,” he said, adding that the first priority of provincial leaders should be to “open up Canada” to all Canadians.
In a letter to federal finance minister Bill Morneau last month, Hyder, whose organization represents business leaders in all sectors and regions across the country, singled out the “hard-hit travel, tourism and hospitality sectors” in a plea for immediate government support including loan guarantees and tax incentives.
“Easing travel restrictions will lessen some of the pain, but it will likely take years before the travel and hospitality industries achieve anything close to a full recovery,” he wrote.
Tourism and air travel aren’t the only sectors hit by Canada’s policies, according to more than two dozen business leaders across the country who penned an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the country’s premiers a few weeks ago.
The heads of 27 companies including large banks, airlines and telcos called on governments to begin easing Canada’s travel restrictions, including mandatory quarantines and prohibitions on non-essential business travel, to help the broader economy recover.
“In addition to the human tragedy resulting from this virus … millions have lost their livelihoods,” wrote the chief executives, including Darren Entwistle of Telus and Linda Hasenfratz of Linamar Corp, both members of Hyder’s organization. “Businesses big and small are struggling to survive, and many will not,” they wrote.
The CEOs called air transportation a “key economic driver” whose functioning is “critical for the entire Canadian economy.”
Hyder said a safe reopening will require federal-provincial co-operation on several fronts, including the implementation of a Canada-wide testing and tracing strategy that he hopes includes “widespread deployment” of digital contact tracing to quell outbreaks of COVID-19.
In an echo of a call by Air Canada chief executive Calin Rovinescu and other business leaders last month, Hyder is urging Ottawa to begin letting in international travellers from the “safest” countries — those that have met targets in controlling the spread of the virus and established testing and tracing capabilities.
Last week, the European Union identified Canada among a list of 14 countries including Australia, New Zealand and South Korea whose citizens would be allowed to fly into Europe as of July 1. But Canada still has a general travel advisory in effect that recommends against any non-essential travel outside Canada, and which requires incoming and returning travellers to self-isolate for 14 days.
Canada has recorded just over 100,000 cases of COVID-19, with the more than 8,500 resulting deaths largely concentrated in long-term care homes and other seniors’ residents. While many regions are now seeing few to no new cases, some urban areas such as Toronto and its suburbs have continued to see cases climb. Canada’s largest city had 809 active cases on July 1, according to statistics kept by the City of Toronto. There have also been outbreaks at Alberta meat packing facilities and among migrant workers on Ontario farms.
Hyder said he expects there will continue to be outbreaks, and the next phase for businesses, governments, and individual Canadians should be figuring out how to “co-exist with COVID” until there is a vaccine.
“Tiptoe your way back in — but get out of your house,” he said, adding that businesses including airlines have a big incentive to ensure a safe re-start to the economy because they will pay dearly if they get it wrong.
Some airline customers are already skeptical of a recent decision by carriers including Air Canada and West Jet to return to the regular practice of selling every seat on an aircraft, rather than every other seat to leave now-familiar “social distancing” space between travellers. The airlines say they are following industry guidelines, and that mandatory masks, and stepped-up cleaning will sufficiently reduce the risk of virus transmission.
“No one will want to fly if it’s not working,” Hyder said, adding that governments at all levels could help by being less “polite” about public health rules, such as mandatory masks for indoor locations, to help business can back to serving customers.
“We’ve been too polite. Tell me what to do,” he said, urging governments to mandate behaviour rather than issuing guidelines or suggestions.
Last week, Toronto City Council passed a bylaw requiring that a mask or face covering be worn in indoor public spaces including retail stores and malls in Canada’s largest city beginning July 7. There is no such requirement for the rest of the province.