Alberta chambers of commerce seek clarity on circumstances that would trigger a lockdown

The Edmonton Chamber of Commerce is calling for the Alberta government to adopt an early warning system that would tell businesses when pandemic rules might change.

Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba have clearly spelled out, colour-coded systems

Alberta businesses want the province to make it easier for them to understand what COVID-19 numbers will trigger tighter restrictions or a lockdown, says Janet Riopel, president and CEO of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce. (CBC)

Certainty and predictability have been foreign concepts to Alberta business owners this year.

The magnitude of unknowns has prompted some chambers of commerce to call on the provincial government to give them better insight into what might prompt further restrictions.

"We know there's no crystal ball," Edmonton Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Janet Riopel said in an interview late last month. "And we're not asking government to somehow invent one."

After consulting with business owners and community leaders about what might better equip Alberta to weather the COVID-19 pandemic, the chamber heard common themes: tools that allow businesses to better plan was one of them.

The chamber is calling for the Alberta government to adopt a risk index — or barometer, or early warning system — that would tell businesses what restrictions will be imposed as COVID-19 cases rise.

Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba such indexes. Those provinces classify geographic areas by colours or stages and apply uniform restrictions across each.

Ontario's five-stage system is based on the weekly rate of new cases per 100,000 residents, the positive testing rate, the rate of growth in spread, hospital-bed availability and contact-tracing capacity.

As numbers nudge over the limits, restaurants know fewer people are allowed to sit together, or indoor dining will be forbidden. Malls know they will have to screen shoppers at entrances. Theatres know they will have to close to audiences, but not rehearsals.

"We're calling on governments to just make it easier for businesses to understand what the risks are; to understand when they may be faced with taking increased action to shut down or to adjust their relationship with their customers," Riopel said.

The Opposition NDP is also calling for a more detailed risk-index system, among other non-restrictive pandemic measures.

Alberta's watches and enhanced measures

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said in an interview last month Alberta has such an index. It's not colour-coded, or numbered, but there is a map where citizens can see which areas are under COVID watches or enhanced measures.

More than 10 cases per municipality, or per 100,000 population, triggers a watch, and more than 50 cases leads to the government applying voluntary or mandatory restrictions negotiated with local leaders.

The government won't apply a one-size-fits-all solution to a complex problem, Shandro said.

Alberta's watch and enhanced measures system for COVID is good enough as it is, says Health Minister Tyler Shandro. (Sam Martin/CBC)

"All of the measures we take here in Alberta, they're going to be narrow," he said in late October. "They're going to be focused. They're going to be targeted. They're not going to be blanket restrictions."

But Alberta's current system is confusing, said Rick More, Red Deer and District Chamber of Commerce CEO.

The rules for different areas keep changing, and business owners tell him they're sometimes having trouble adjusting. 

More said he finds Ontario's limits and stages clear and concise.

"I think the provincial government is going to have to step in and mandate a clear thing for all of Alberta," he said.

Retailers especially could use some clarity as the holiday season approaches, said John Graham, the Retail Council of Canada's director of government relations for the Prairies.

November is normally the busiest time of the year for stores, when they'd usually be hiring extra staff and ordering in more stock. As COVID cases rise across Canada, it's hard for owners to know what to do, Graham said Tuesday.

Whatever triggers or system a province chooses, it needs to be transparent and predictable, he said.

"At least it gives you some level of indication of where things could lead," he said.

Adjusting to limited hours or reduced occupancy levels is relatively easy to do quickly, he said. Forced shutdowns are more disruptive and should come with as much warning as possible.

Doug Schweitzer, minister of jobs, economy and innovation, said industry groups he's spoken to want to know what tools they need to run safely, not when restrictions might come.

"All they're really asking for from government is that we continue to keep them informed, that we continue to work with them on reasonable, practical guidelines, and that we follow the data," Schweitzer said in late October.

Although Alberta tracers are struggling to keep up with tracking the path of COVID's spread, data have shown transmission in restaurants makes up about two-to-three per cent of cases with a known origin, he said.

Private gatherings and parties are where people seem to be most frequently exposed. That's where Alberta's — mostly voluntary — measures are focused right now.

"It's more of a constructive, positive thought process that we're hearing from the businesses community," Schweitzer said. "They've done an immense amount of work throughout the pandemic to stay open and be responsible."

About the Author

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also been a reporter at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca


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