BONNYVILLE — Over the summer, Albertans saw very few health restrictions compared to other provinces.
Now, businesses and patrons are being asked to follow the Alberta government’s new Restriction Exemption Program (REP) or limit occupancy and follow additional health guidelines in order to remain operating.
These measures are deemed necessary to combat the province’s high rate of COVID related hospitalizations and overrun ICUs, say provincial decision makers.
In Alberta, there are more than 1,000 people being treated in hospital for COVID-19. Over 250 of those patients are taking up spots in the province’s ICUs and battling for their lives. On Sept. 8, AHS also announced that elective surgeries and procedures would be postponed indefinitely, in order to have sufficient inpatient and ICU capacity moving forward.
As the province tries to manage a fourth wave of the pandemic, business owners fear a fourth lockdown.
Serina Parsons, executive director of the Bonnyville and District Chamber of Commerce says whether a business opts for or out of the province’s new REP program, the silver lining is that stores and restaurants will be able to remain open.
Following the province’s announcement of the REP program the Chamber received several calls from local business owners with questions and concerns around “confusing criteria,” when the program was initially announced, says Parsons.
“The biggest concern that we were getting was, ‘How do we implement this? How do we manage this?’ because it's putting a lot of onus on restaurant owners to implement and manage the program,” said Parsons, explaining business owners' hesitancy. “But there were definitely some positive outlooks in the fact that it's not a full lockdown.”
Now, individual businesses are being put in a very precarious situation of choosing to operate under the Restriction Exemption Program where they can operate at full capacity, or not.
It’s not personal, it’s business
The province has seen three lockdowns since the pandemic started, a fourth lockdown could mean the end for some businesses.
That is how dire the situation is for some companies, says Parsons, who advocates kindness for businesses owners trying to cope with regularly changing operational guidelines.
"They are being put in an impossible position... The people that are running these businesses are trying to do what they can to survive. It's no longer just about their moral beliefs or their beliefs around COVID. It's strictly trying to stay open and operate and stay in business for their own personal livelihoods – and they're being heavily judged for that,” she told Lakeland This Week.
According to Parsons, the majority of businesses in Bonnyville are operating under REP, which requires operators check for proof of vaccination, a negative rapid test taken within 72 hours, or proof of a medical exemption for patrons aged 12 and older.
“The biggest challenge that those businesses are being faced with is public scrutiny,” Parsons said. But, “If they're choosing not to operate under that program, businesses are also being faced with a lot of public scrutiny.”
As the pandemic persists, divisions continue to grow in communities, in populations, and across the province surrounding governmental agencies’ response to the current health crisis. Divisions are trickling down to retailers and restaurants, she says.
“Whether or not (a business) has chosen to operate under this program, we need to continue to support local, regardless of your beliefs surrounding COVID,” Parson implored. “Businesses are only doing what they can right now, they aren't the decision makers. Let's not direct our anger towards those where it shouldn't be directed.”
If you’re vaccinated and can dine-in, do so, recommends Parsons. If you are not, eat on patios or ask for take-out. Look for pick-up or curbside delivery options from retailers that may or may not be operating under the REP program.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘Well, those people are operating under Restriction Exemption Program, so I'm not going to support them anymore’ and that is not the right attitude to have,” added Parsons.
“The restrictions themselves, yes, they are inconvenient. And yes, they are posing some challenges for businesses, but it's the public perception and public scrutiny that has been the biggest challenge,” she said.
Rules are meant to be followed
With provincial guidelines being followed in various manners and to differing degrees by businesses throughout the MD, the Bonnyville and District Chamber of Commerce continues to encourage people to follow public health guidelines.
Although some businesses may choose not to implement provincially mandated guidelines, it is not up to the Chamber to enforce those instances, but as an organization they work to inform and provide owners with the knowledge and tools to operate in accordance to the law.
“If people have issue with how a business is choosing to operate or not operate, that would have to go to AHS,” noted Parsons.
“I don't want to see any business members struggle in our community. However, I do advise all businesses, if they are choosing to not adhere to any public health guidelines, that if complaints are made, the repercussions may be devastating and far reaching — It's important that the risks are weighed with the potential reward,” she said.
It can be “hard when you're asking a young hostess at a restaurant to implement such a program... But, so far, the majority of businesses – restaurants especially – have stated that customers have been respectful and have, for the most part, have adhered the REP program.”
Following a meeting between Alberta Chamber of Commerce representatives and Premier Jason Kenney and the Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation Doug Schweitzer last week, Parsons says the goal of Chambers of Commerce across the province is to “really get voices heard. That's not necessarily to say, use this program or don't, but making adjustments to the programs so that businesses that fall between the cracks are being recognized.”