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Ontario easing COVID-19 rules, but are people still too 'traumatized' to go out and spend?

While Ontario business leaders are cheering the government’s latest easing of COVID-19 restrictions, some say it’s going to take more to convince a wary public that it’s safe to return to old spending habits.

Public will need help returning to old ways, business leaders warn

The Ontario government is lifting capacity restrictions on many businesses and ending the proof of vaccination system. But business leaders worry that won't be enough to bring back customers. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

Ontario business leaders are cheering the government's latest easing of COVID-19 restrictions but some say it's going to take more to convince a wary public that it's safe to return to old spending habits.

"Governments and public health officials have scared the public to stay home. We've had messages for two straight years saying leaving your house may mean that you die," said Dan Kelly, president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

Kelly says the provincial government's latest policy shifts are a positive sign and that the province is "starting the pathway to recovery of small business."

On Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the government will be lifting capacity limits in settings such as restaurants, bars, cinemas and gyms. As well, the province's proof-of-vaccination system will no longer be mandatory as of March 1. But Kelly and others in the business community say no true recovery is possible until government and public-health messaging encourages people to resume previous ways of life and commerce.

Dan Kelly, the president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says governments and public health officials need to shift their messaging to persuade people it's safe to lift restrictions. (CBC News)

"We're going to have to get public-health officials and governments to say, 'It's time to go back to your office. It's time to go out for dinner, go to the theatre, take a trip,'" Kelly said.

"We're not there yet."

Public 'traumatized'

Rocco Rossi, the president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, agrees the Ford government's moves are "extremely encouraging and welcome news," but he says Ford's announcement lacked the level of confidence that the public needs to hear to believe it's safe.

"After two years of being traumatized, going back to full participation in the economy is not an on/off switch," Rossi said in an interview.

He says employees will also need help getting back to work. Labour shortages in the service sector and other industries have been a problem throughout the pandemic.

Rocco Rossi is the president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. (Ontario Chamber of Commerce)

And while businesspeople say there are several reasons behind it, including government assistance programs such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), Rossi says there's also a fear factor and wants more confidence and safety assurances from the government. 

"Part of it is anxiety. It's not simply competing against free government money," Rossi said. 

"So how are you going to get people to go back to work? This is not zero risk, but it's managing a risk."

Rossi says making rapid COVID-19 testing more widely available for small and medium-sized businesses could help workers do just that.

Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious diseases specialist, agrees governments should shift their messaging. He says it's time for a more 'sustainable' approach to containing COVID-19. (Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti)

Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease specialist with Trillium Health Partners, says he supports the easing of restrictions and agrees a shift in government messaging will be an important step. 

Chakrabarti, who has generally favoured a less restrictive strategy for managing the spread of COVID-19 than some others in his field, says the virus may never be eradicated and it's time for a more "sustainable" approach.

"The idea of restrictions, to the degree that we've used them, has never been done in human history," he told CBC News.

He says the province should be trying to calm the public's fears, given the high level of protection against severe disease and hospitalization that most people have through vaccination, with more than 80 per cent of Ontarians having received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

He also favours the decision to remove the government's proof of vaccination system since, he says, it is not achieving its main goal of stopping the spread of COVID-19 in public settings. He says there's now evidence that while the vaccines protect against severe illness and death, transmission is still possible.

"I'm glad it's being lifted," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Trevor Dunn is an award-winning journalist with CBC Toronto. Since 2008 he's covered a variety of topics, ranging from local and national politics to technology on the South American countryside. Trevor is interested in uncovering news: real estate, crime, corruption, art, sports. Reach out to him. Se habla español. trevor.dunn@cbc.ca

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