Though public, institutional, and commercial life is resuming on the Saanich Peninsula, one local business leader is urging fellow businesses to plan ahead for a second COVID-19 phase.
Perhaps the most powerful symbol of this development is Monday’s re-opening of schools across the region as the provincial government has given the green light for what education minister Rob Fleming has called a “safe and gradual return to part-time, in-class instruction” in a province-wide letter to parents in which he thanked them for their efforts.
“You have been helping with remote learning, many of you while working from home,” he said. “You have been keeping kids active and engaged and safe and calm. Your efforts are noted and appreciated.”
But Fleming’s letter also acknowledges that Monday’s resumption of school marks a tentative step.
For one, it is voluntary and for most students partial. Students in Kindergarten to Grade 5 will have the option to attend half-time with their respective schools limited to 50 per cent capacity, while students in Grade 6 to 12 will have the option to attend school approximately one day a week. Children of essential service workers and students who require additional support will have the option to attend class full-time.
Ultimately, the province has given school district and independent school authorities the flexibility to make their own plans.
Dave Eberwein, superintendent and chief executive officer, for School District No. 63 said in a public message dated Friday May 29 to parents that ” [our] schools and classrooms are ready for your children” while also trying to ease any fears. “The safety of everyone has always been our top priority and it continues to be as we move into [the third phase of the provincial re-start],” he said.
He promised excited teachers, administrators and support staff, but also that “[school] will look different on Monday with new signage and procedures in place.”
North Saanich residents will also have to get used to new signs and procedures when their municipal hall opens Monday for the first time since mid-March, so they can pay their property taxes and utility bills in-person, if they choose so. If so, the municipality has clearly signalled that this re-opening does not mark a return to normal.
“Only come to the hall as a last resort and follow the signs and markings for physical distancing,” reads a message to residents in urging them to pay their taxes online, echoing similar messaging in Sidney and Central Saanich.
Another sign of life resuming to something approaching normal has been Sidney’s decision to close the temporary rest stop set up in late March for truckers delivering essential, with officials citing the increased availability of food services and the need for downtown parking for the decision.
Notably, several local restaurants have earmarked early June as the starting point for offering dine-in services again in joining a growing number of businesses that have either re-opened their doors after having shut down completely for months or temporarily re-jigged their businesses to a take-out or delivery model.
But this re-opening hardly constitutes a return to normal, as businesses across the region will have to make additional changes in the face of capacity limits and new hygiene requirements or introduce long-delayed changes.
“If you don’t change, you are going to die,” said Richard Talbot, a long-time retail consultant.
For now, businesses of various categories but especially restaurants are preparing for moving parts of their business outdoors to take advantage of pending bylaw changes.
These specific developments unfold against larger uncertainties in the broader economic picture.
Morgan Shaw, executive director and event liaison/facilitator with the Sidney Business Improvement Area Society, said the local re-start has been going well, with many businesses excited to be open again and appreciative of the efforts by the municipality to help them.
“So far, it seems to be a fairly positive outlook throughout the business community here,” she said.
This said, Shaw said her organization is still assessing the economic effects of the lock-down, adding that it can vary significantly from business to business. “There is not a concrete answer to that question unfortunately, as much as I would like it as well,” she said.
The picture is even less clear when it comes to the months, even years ahead.
One uncertain variable is the level of tourism that Sidney will be able to generate this summer. “I’d imagine, as do most, that would obviously be much softer. So we are looking to our local population and residents on the Saanich Peninsula to support the business community this summer.”
To that end, the society plans to air a promotional video later this month through social media to help generate additional traffic to the downtown area.
But all of these efforts unfold against a larger threat — the possibility that senior authorities may revive various public health rules now being lifted if cases of COVID-19 flare up again beyond a certain level.
“The BIA would advise businesses to prepare for a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall or in the winter,” said Shaw. “That is something we will be working with our business members to prepare and hopefully equip them, so that isn’t coming as such a surprise.”
In other words, the current re-opening phase might just be an interlude.
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