New Brunswick

Questions abound on how New Brunswick could safely reopen

Employees will be expected to return to work if their employer meets Public Health requirements, Premier Blaine Higgs said while discussing how the New Brunswick government could begin relaxing COVID-19 restrictions and allowing non-essential businesses to reopen.

Higgs says next 2 weeks critical in determining when restrictions could be relaxed

Premier Blaine Higgs has been providing daily news updates throughout the work week since the outbreak started in New Brunswick last month. (Photo: Government of New Brunswick)

Employees will be expected to return to work if their employer meets Public Health requirements, Premier Blaine Higgs said while discussing how the New Brunswick government could begin relaxing COVID-19 restrictions and allow non-essential businesses to reopen.

Higgs said Wednesday that employees who don't feel safe in their working environment can contact WorkSafeNB, as they would under normal circumstances, and the workplace watchdog can conduct an investigation to ensure compliance.

"Once that is independently determined, if it's determined they're not able to, then that employee has no obligation to come back to work," Higgs during the daily briefing. "But if their employer does meet the requirements and is able to provide safe working conditions to meet the regulations, then the employee is required to go back to work."

Exactly how and when the government will reopen the province is a question on the minds of many New Brunswickers after two weeks of slow growth in confirmed COVID-19 cases, few hospitalizations and recovered cases outpacing fresh ones.

The province is developing a plan to ease restrictions and start reopening businesses, Higgs said, and the premier appears more optimistic this week, suggesting that — if all goes well — the initial stage of recovery could occur in May. Last Thursday, Higgs said there was hope the province could return to some form of normal this summer.

Precise details of the recovery plan have not been released, and it's not clear what measures will be taken to ensure the safety of workers and the public or what steps businesses will have to take to satisfy health officials.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Union of Public Employees in New Brunswick said Wednesday "caution is key." 

"Before lifting restrictions and allowing a return to work, we do hope workers will be not just consulted and listened to," Simon Ouellette said in an email.

"CUPE members have been doing great work, delivering quality public services we all depend on. Return to work or not, caution is key. The World Health Organisation has warned that reopening up prematurely and improperly could put us all back in the same precarious situation. If done improperly, they say this would put front line workers at risk all over again."

Next 2 weeks are critical, Higgs says

The statement echoed what Higgs and Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health, have emphasized during the daily briefings: it's a fluid situation, don't let the positive data make you complacent, and the timeline for recovery depends on you, the physically distant public. 

"I think there are a lot of things we will be able to do carrying forward, but it depends on the success of the next couple of weeks in terms of our caseload and what we're finding throughout the communities," Higgs said Wednesday when asked about consumer safety.

"But It also depends on our ability in the process to follow guidelines that are currently in place so that we don't see any resurgence, so that we don't expose anyone unnecessarily and we do this in a very methodical way so … we don't find ourselves regressing in a month or two from now."

Higgs said retail stores could be reopened, if they're able to meet health standards.

Last week, the premier told CBC News the province is losing out on $40 million in revenue per month and he's also concerned about equalization transfer payments with Alberta's economy "devastated." It raises questions about how the government will maintain critical services in a prolonged shutdown, he said.

Russell envisioned a scale for relaxing protective measures in conveying Wednesday what a return to normal would look like, with border restrictions and banning mass gatherings the most important and likely the last to go.

"As you go down the list, it would include things like bars and restaurants, which would have risks, sports activities, which have risks, and then as you get down in the lower things … you would look at non-essential businesses and social distancing measures each business can implement," she said.

Things won’t go ‘completely back to normal’ until we get a COVID-19 vaccine, top doctor says

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Dr. Jennifer Russell lists the things the province considers the most important protective actions, with shutting the borders leading the list. 3:05

However, Russell said things won't go "completely back to normal" until there is a vaccine.

Businesses 'anxious' to reopen

The ability to stay below hospital capacity is a key factor in informing those decisions, Russell said.

The timetable for recovery will have an immense impact on businesses, said Krista Ross, CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce.

Ross said it's likely 70 to 90 per cent of their 1,000 members have been affected by the pandemic and subsequent shutdown. That means limited operations for some, total shutdowns for others and, in some cases, businesses that won't be able to reopen.

Krista Ross is the CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce. (CBC News file photo)

"The longer any business is closed the more difficult it is because the more their expenses will continue to come due with no revenue or low revenue," Ross said.

Ross said owners are "anxious" for a return to normal and prepared to follow Public Health directives — whatever they may be.

"There are a lot of questions businesses have as they begin to contemplate reopening," she said. 

The chamber has been busy acting as a resource for members, relaying information and advocating on their behalf to address issues if the shutdown is prolonged.

This week, the chambers for Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John submitted a letter to the government calling for a commercial rent subsidy program that would offer tenants and landlords a grant, cap monthly rent and reduce property tax by 25 per cent.

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