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2020-04-14 - Early Days of COVID-19

Now about a month into feeling the effects of the COVID-19 crisis here in Canada and New Brunswick, I think we are all reeling from how quickly our way of life has changed and adjusting to the new normal is challenging when so much uncertainty hangs over daily life. This is a crisis unlike anything experienced in memory so there’s no familiar footing to fall back on to help navigate the situation. Even if there was, things are changing so fast it might not matter. 

There are the big, broad questions on everyone’s mind – how long will the imposed measures last? Will our public health efforts flatten the curve? What is life going to look like on the other side? We have no way of answering these questions right now and that crates anxiety. I encourage everyone to put their health first, including – and perhaps particularly – your mental health. These are trying times and we need to be here for each other. 

For many, there are more immediately pressing questions – is my business / job going to survive? Can I pay rent next month? What help is out there for me? Over the past month I have had one heartbreaking conversation after another with business owners and managers. They are making difficult decisions on a daily basis; they are trying to do right by their employees and customers, and they are looking for answers too. 

But I also already see the resiliency in our community and in our businesses. People are learning to adapt, businesses are pivoting to delivery and curbside pickup options that allow them to continue to operate and most importantly, we’re helping each other out. More than ever, we’re seeing the value and importance of supporting local businesses, of having more local manufacturers and of having robust supply chain options. 

We are going to need to maintain this focus moving forward. Beyond the COVID-19 crisis, we continue to have big economic challenges in New Brunswick which are only going to be exacerbated over the coming months – an aging workforce, a small population, a large debt and high taxes – to name a few. The current crisis is so severe that even these challenges are taking a back seat right now. 

Broadly speaking I think we need to focus on three things in relation to the economy: a collective public health effort, a groundswell of support from local communities, and aggressive economic stimulus and other financial support on the part of the federal and provincial governments.  

Public Health 

The current health and economic crisis are inseparable. The best thing we can collectively do for both the economy and public health in this moment is follow the recommendations of our health officials in order to flatten the curve and expedite the recovery process. The better we all do with this, the more we can mitigate the damage done to our health and our economy. We are watching the effects of inaction in other parts of the world and should be doing everything we can to avoid the fate of countries like Italy or Spain. 

Groundswell of local support 

We also need this collective spirit to carry over into a groundswell of support for local businesses and not-for-profit organizations. It’s always been important to support local, but now is the time to double down on our efforts and do whatever we can to help ensure that the businesses we know and love will be around for years to come.  

That includes things like making local purchasing decisions where you can, engaging on social media, buying gift cards and the like. But it also means understanding that many businesses remain operational (albeit in a modified capacity in most cases) and they are only allowed to remain that way if they are adhering to the parameters of New Brunswick’s state of emergency declaration. Communities need to maintain a baseline level of operation – supply chains have to remain intact as goods and services are still required during a pandemic. 

So you can expect to see deliveries being made, support services seeing clients on an appointment-basis and public-facing businesses that provide essential goods open. They are all operating under the state of emergency rules and in cases where there are breaches, the government’s enforcement seems to be acting quickly based on Premier Higgs’ initial reports. The people working and performing these tasks should be celebrated – we are all heavily relying on them. 

In an effort to hit the ground running towards recovery, the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce launched our “Open, Operational, Offering Help” listing as a community resource to let people know what businesses remain open, how their operations have been modified and if they are offering any services to other local businesses to help one another get through the crisis. 

Government Support 

The third piece that the chamber is focused on is support from all levels of government. We have called for financial restraint and debt reduction from government as much as anyone, but this extraordinary situation calls for an extraordinary response. Indeed, building capacity to effectively deal with unforeseen situations such as COVID-19 is a primary reason to be good stewards of public finances. 

We have appreciated the quick action and ‘’all hands on deck” approach that our governments have taken in the early days of the crisis. Particularly at the provincial level, the unprecedented multi-party approach to consultation, information sharing and decision making has provided confidence in our political leadership. I’d like to particularly thank Dr Russell for her steady leadership and calm communication style throughout the crisis – it’s just what the doctor ordered. The informed daily updates with her and Premier Higgs have been a source comfort for the business community and all New Brunswickers. 

The federal government has taken in feedback and incrementally improved the programs that have been announced so far. The provincial government position, as articulated by Premier Higgs is that they are looking to fill gaps in government support. This makes sense and to that end, last week the CEOs of the Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John chambers of commerce provided a list that summarizes the various relief measures that our organizations have suggested that are solely within the purview of the Government of New Brunswick. These include implementing a small business rental deferral guarantee program, similar to PEI and Nova Scotia, adjustments to the Small Business Investor Tax Credit, as well as allowing restaurants to provide takeout alcohol like they have recently done in many other provinces. 

The fact remains that we don’t yet know the true extent of this crisis, but early evidence suggests it’s unlike anything we’ve seen and we’ll need to throw everything we have at it. Nearly a million Canadians applied for Employment Insurance during a single week in March. More than 60,000 New Brunswickers have applied for the province’s Workers’ Emergency Income Benefit since Monday.  

It’s hard to comprehend and contextualize numbers like that and impossible to know where they are headed. So let’s focus on what we can control and do that well – take care of our health, support local businesses and organizations and tell governments exactly how they can help us. Maybe we can’t see it yet, but the other side of this is coming and what actions we take right now will play a big part in determining what that future looks like. For the sake of our community, let’s get it right. 

Krista Ross is CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, a nationally accredited organization with more than 1,000 members, is an active business organization engaged in policy development and advocacy that affects the competitiveness of our members and the Canadian business environment. The Chamber’s vision is ‘Stronger Community Through Business Prosperity’ 


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