Nfld. & Labrador

Reopen economy fully, and soon, business leaders tell Ball in hard-hitting letter

More than 50 high-profile members of the business community have written Premier Dwight Ball demanding a reopening of the economy.

Long-term impacts to economy will be irreversible if no action taken, letter says

Dwight Ball has been warned that not reopening the economy in full will have disastrous implications for many employers. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

More than 50 high-profile members of Newfoundland and Labrador's business community have written to Premier Dwight Ball to demand a prompt reopening of the economy. 

"Specifically, we are asking for an immediate end to the state of medical emergency and a return of the governance of the province to our elected officials," reads the letter.

They also want the government to skip Alert Level 2 and move directly to Alert Level 1 on July 6.

The letter — signed by business leaders such as Zita Cobb, Mark Dobbin, Frank Coleman and Rob Crosbie, among dozens of others — also asks for a recovery plan, as they say the province is on the brink of an irreparable economic disaster.

"The long-term impacts to our economic capacity will be irreversible if we do not take immediate action. Businesses in every sector and of every size are impacted," the letter said.

The business leaders commend the province for flattening the curve of COVID-19 infections, as there are only two active cases in the province. The letter says restrictive public health measures were necessary to ensure the health-care system was not overwhelmed.  

Hotelier Judy Sparkes-Giannou, who signed the letter, said the time has come to broaden the public discussion about the pandemic beyond its health implications.

"At this moment, it's feeling a little bit one-dimensional,"  said Sparkes-Giannou, who co-owns Clayton Hospitality.

"We have an economic crisis, and that requires a response as well, and that requires a very different response than keeping the economy closed for extended periods of time."

'At a point where there's too much caution'

Businessman Andrew Bell, who also signed the letter, said the province needs to take a broader and more balanced approach. 

He feels there's been a lack of urgency when it comes to considering the other health and social issues stemming from the pandemic.

Busnessman Andrew Bell is urging for a new approach: 'We're at a point where there's too much caution.' (Gary Locke/CBC)

"We're at a point where there's too much caution," said Bell.

Bell said the impact on business has been catastrophic, so far, but he said it be clear how much damage has been done until the fall or next spring.

"Now is the time, I think — especially if we're going to talk about Atlantic Canada [having] a bubble — that they need to give it serious consideration," he said, adding it must have the right screening and protections.

Bell is concerned about how people will survive the pandemic and the financial crisis that will follow.

"We can't be a one-trick pony and looking after COVID and COVID-19 alone," he said.

The business leaders are also concerned that political leaders and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald are pursuing a policy of zero cases of COVID-19.

"But at what cost?" asks the letter. 

"In the absence of a clear communication of the provincial recovery plan, one is left to assume it is to target zero cases, enforce a strict lockdown to maintain this status and wait for new drug treatments and ultimately a vaccine before reopening our society."

Susan Drover, who owns SAM Design, said it's time to get back to business, and create a plan to recover.

"Another month could be extremely detrimental to all our businesses," said Drover. 

"It's the time to move from public health making decisions to actually making economic decisions, because clearly we're all safe from a public health perspective right now," she said.

Ball defends government, public health response

When pressed by reporters about the criticism Friday, Ball said it's because of those public health restrictions that Newfoundland and Labrador has been successful fighting the pandemic. 

Ball said the governance of the province has "never left the elected officials," even under the current public health state of emergency. 

He said the province has come a long way in a short time, but jumping right ahead to Alert Level 1 could potentially have public health consequences. 

"We are here today because we have successfully worked our way through this program, through this alert system, because we have the support of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, which includes the many businesses that have been very successful and working with the province throughout this pandemic," Ball told reporters.

Many stores reopened this week across the province, but some business leaders say the government needs to strike a better balance between public health and safety and keeping the economy moving. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Ball also said the letter was addressed to him and labelled confidential because it's not about pitting public health against business and the economy.

"It''s not about picking one or the other. It's about making sure we do all of it safely," he said.

Public debate needed

But some of the business leaders who signed the letter say the costs of such an economic restart plan have not been communicated to the public and they need to be debated publicly.

"There really has been no discussion," said Sparkes-Giannou.

The business leaders say the highly restrictive public health measures are taking a toll on mental health, increasing domestic violence, and hurting at-risk youth as well as school-aged children.

Read the text of the letter here: 

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They are also concerned about the impact on the health-care system, as "people are not getting the care they need and for many, unfortunately, it is already too late."

Said Bell: "How will they survive the issues and the delays that they've had and getting their elective surgeries." 

The signatories say measures have been punitive to certain sectors of the economy and local businesses need a plan to help them survive.

They also say child care and school are critical to the economy, as parents cannot work from home with their children. 

"Many will be forced to leave the workforce if not provided with child-care support," the letter says. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Heather Gillis

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