If the re-launch of local businesses fails, the regional economy could see a lock-down that will be worse than the first time around, warns the president of the Lac La Biche and District Chamber of Commerce.
J. Paul McLeod says that no matter what a person thinks about the COVID-19 pandemic and the precautions — something he calls a person's dignity of risk — the community is going to have to work together to keep stores open and the virus away.
"We need to respect one another," said McLeod last Thursday, just days before provincial government regulations on Alberta-wide closures of many businesses saw a partial lifting.
For more than a month, provincial regulations have allowed only businesses determined to be "essential" to keep their doors open to customer traffic. Other businesses, including clothing stores, restaurants and hair salons have been forced to close their doors and find other ways to provide service or supplies to maintain revenues. Many businesses forced to close — locally and around the world — may not open again.
McLeod says he knows several business owners who, "on paper are already shut down" and need the re-launch to work in order to have a chance at saving their operations.
If the public and business operators don't respect the many levels involved in the dignity of risk — if some continue to disregard precautions or don't respect those who take the precautions very seriously — "we are in for a big hit," says McLeod, expecting a complete "lock-down" on business if the re-launch fails.
He hopes people will compromise some of their own feelings and actions regarding the COVID pandemic in order to keep the "freedoms" that will come with the business relaunch.
"If we don't do it right, don't respect each other and what we have, the virus could take off again and we'll all be shut down. So those of us who don't think the virus is a big deal might have to modify our behaviour because we want to keep our community open," he told the POST. "Whether you agree or not, in order to heal, we all need to do what we have to so we can all stay open."
McLeod himself admits to following the precautions closely, wearing a mask when around others, washing his hands regularly, and — counting out an average visit to the pumps to get fuel for his own business' construction equipment — says he disinfects his hands "about eight times" in the process of the fill-up.
Click: Details on Alberta's relaunch plan
Sticking to the script from decades of Chamber of Commerce promotion, McLeod said an advantage to the Shop Local mindset is that it will reduce the risks of COVID contamination.
"It minimizes the risk of transmission when we keep in our local community, as long as we are practicing social distancing and the precautions," he said, adding that he's been very impressed by the level of precautions taken in local businesses. "I have been very encouraged to see that there has been terrific leadership from local businesses that have gone over and above to protect their customers as well as their staff. If that keeps up, we will move ahead."
As the province plans to move ahead with the relaunch — amid continuing COVID precautions, Alberta's chief medical officer of health issued similar cautions about the risks of protocol non-compliance. In her April 7 daily news brief, Dr. Deena Hinshaw gave an example of how quickly the ripples can spread.
I want to share a story with you about why it is so important that we are cautious about restarting practices of gathering in person as a way of preventing future outbreaks.
I had the opportunity recently to talk to a faith leader whose faith community gathered together in mid-March, before many of our public health measures were in place. I want to thank this faith community for being willing to share their story so others can learn from their experience.
The congregation had a worship service, and then gathered together after the service for a celebratory social event. There were only 41 people present, and they were careful to observe 2 metre distancing and good hand hygiene. Food and drink were served by a small number of servers wearing gloves.
No one was ill at the time.
They followed all the rules, and did nothing wrong.
Unfortunately, within a week of the event, one person who had been there tested positive for COVID-19. Many others followed. In total, 24 of the 41 people who attended were confirmed to be cases, three of those people ended up in hospital, and two of them died. It isn’t clear what the source of the virus was for the people at the gathering that day. It could have been environmental contamination from others who had previously been in the building. It could have been that someone who attended had been exposed elsewhere, was unknowingly infected and able to pass the virus on to others before their symptoms started.
We may never know exactly what happened, but the message is clear. Even with the precautions they took, more than half of those who attended that day got sick.
Two lives were lost and those left behind are grieving their absence and the incomprehension of how what should have been a joyful event turned tragic.
I share this story as a cautionary tale and an example of how informal gatherings, even when trying to follow distancing rules, can result in large spreading events. We all want to be able to gather again. We humans are hard-wired for connection, and physical closeness is not fully replaced by virtual gatherings. Whether a religious gathering or social gathering, I know we are all missing being together in ways that we once took for granted.
Despite this, I am asking you to remain cautious. I am asking you to keep being creative about other ways of connecting and sharing meaningful moments.
Zicki Eludin has been running his downtown Lac La Biche pharmacy for 45 years. When asked what advice he'd give to customers and merchants as the relaunch plan comes into place, he said "common sense" — on both sides of the counter.
"The most important thing to keep in mind is common sense," the Crescent IDA owner said, explaining that the unprecedented times call for a mix of new ideas and traditional business knowledge. "Don't over-do things. Don't add to the stresses. Do the best you can. Don't panic."
Frequent hand-washing, social distancing, the use of facemasks if necessary are all current common sense practices that will keep customers and businesses healthy, he said, adding that his 45 years of experience has also shown that customer service — pandemic or not — is vital to small business.
"It's the only way you can compete is customer service. You have to be there for your customers, your community and know their unique needs," said Eludin, who has also served as a president of the local chamber of commerce. "
As the pandemic's effects have compounded an already difficult local economy for many businesses, Eludin hopes customers will see the advantages of local service and knowledge. "It's tough times, and you can make up for it with good customer service."