By: Gabriella Pasolli
Editor | Economics and Policy
Five months ago, when Prime Minister Trudeau announced his plan to close the borders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Canada, one question hung heavily in the air: how long would this last and when would the economy reopen? Now, as Canada begins to flatten the curve, policymakers are faced with a new question: how does Canada do it?
Perhaps in a perfect world, Canada’s federal and provincial governments would be able to recommend a uniform and cohesive reopening strategy in the wake of COVID-19. However, Canada’s vast diversity makes such an action painfully obtuse.
Moving forward, Canada should empower municipalities to tailor reopening strategies that suit their local needs, so long as these strategies fall within broad boundaries set by provincial governments. Canadians would see more appropriate protocols, rather than blanket measures that undermine the economic well-being of low-risk locals or threaten the public health of high-risk municipalities.
Dangers of Reopening Gone Wrong
Looking to Canada’s southern neighbour, it is clear that the consequences of a rushed reopening are drastic. In past weeks, COVID-19 has become the third-highest cause of death in the United States, but still, Americans continue to overlook attempts to isolate and stop the spread.
Although Canada has not seen a drastic increase, there has still been a rise in new cases in the past several weeks as reopening has escalated. If Canada is not careful, it may fall prey to the same poor outcomes as the United States. By following suit and rushing reopening, there would likely be a spike in new cases that will incur more physical, economic, and psychological hardships on Canadians.
Flaws in Canada’s Current Approach- Provincial-Municipal Disconnect
Currently, provincial governments have taken the lead within Canada, each establishing their own guidelines and stages for reopening. While this has proven effective in allowing provinces who have been more drastically affected, such as Ontario and Quebec, to be more cautious in their reopening process, many provincial strategies leave much to be desired.
Across Canada, there are communities that were fortunate enough to remain relatively unaffected by COVID-19, yet these communities and their businesses still must abide by the same provincial restrictions as high-risk urban centers. Thus, local rural businesses are put in a position where they must continue to incur financial losses due to policies designed for more densely populated municipalities.
Notably, all provinces are seeing a drastic increase in small business closures. In fact, 32% of surveyed small businesses say they are unsure if they will reopen at all following COVID-19. This is particularly concerning, as historically, rural small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) made up 28% of SMEs in Canada, when rural Canada made up only 20% of the population. The drastic surge of closing small businesses due to COVID-19 does not bode well for business in rural Canada, and unless something changes, it is likely the economy will only continue to worsen for Canadians.
While blanket measures issued by provinces were effective at the beginning of the pandemic, as Canadians move forward, it is clear that treating rural and urban centers as equal with regards to reopening is neither plausible nor the most effective route to take.
Provincial-Municipal Disconnect in Action- September’s School Reopening
Presently in Canada, each province has been able to set their own policies for how students will return to classrooms. While the specifics differ, provinces have taken fairly similar precautions including the use of masks, several cohort-based strategies, and mandated social distancing. But, provinces have used blanket strategies that apply to the entire province, rather than policies that consider the communities wherein the schools exist.
Although most educators would agree that teaching at a rural school with fewer than 300 students, ranging from pre-kindergarten to grade twelve is vastly different than teaching in a city high school with hundreds of students per grade, provincial governments seem to be treating all schools as equal so far as actual policies are concerned.
Ultimately, it seems unlikely that this one-size-fits-all strategy will prove successful due to differing factors, including student population, class sizes, or the ability for social distancing to actually happen in the classroom. Consider that large high schools in the GTA will likely face many possible outbreak risks simply due to their population, as opposed to schools in small, more isolated towns in northern Ontario. It then seems logical that schools in more densely populated regions should be held to a higher standard of precaution to avoid massive outbreaks within schools.
In order for schools to remain open, provinces would be better served to base their recommendations reopening on factors within municipalities and the same may be said of businesses.
Municipal Tailoring as the Rule, Not the Exception
On May 14th when Alberta began its Phase 1 reopening plan, while the majority of the province began to lift restrictions on retailers, restaurants, and an assortment of other businesses, both Calgary and Brooks held off until June 1st due to higher case numbers. This allowed the rest of the province to begin recovering both economically and psychologically, while still protecting those in high-risk areas, exemplifying an ideal reopening strategy.
For Canada to properly manage its reopening, it is crucial that policymakers remain cognizant of the fact that not all municipalities are created equal and that strategies that are well-suited for Toronto may be less ideal in northern Ontario, just as precautions that are effective in Calgary are likely suffocating for rural Alberta. Thus, localized practices cannot stay exceptions, but rather, they must become the rule.
While it is true that Canadian policymakers must remain conscious of the differences that exist not only within Canada, but within provinces themselves, it is also important, in times like this that we remember we are all still Canadians.
We are all still working to move through these times to find a new normal and recover from the losses suffered.
We are in this together, and perhaps with municipal empowerment, will someday step out of COVID-19’s shadow into a new era for all Canadians.