Provinces are talking about restarting the economy — but many Canadians are anxious about moving too fast

Political leaders are trying to figure out how to contain the pandemic and restart the economy. Polls suggests Canadians are ready to keep waiting until the time is right.

Polls suggests Canadians are concerned about lifting restrictions before the pandemic is contained

Quebec Premier François Legault made efforts to reassure Quebecers after discussing opening the schools before the end of this month. (Jacques Boissinot / Canadian Press)

As the country enters its second month of shuttered schools and closed businesses, some provincial premiers are beginning to talk publicly about when they will be able to loosen restrictions and restart the economy.

But polls suggest that most Canadians think it's not time for that conversation yet.

While most premiers and public health officials continue to say that closures and physical distancing measures must stay in place for some time to come to prevent a spike in COVID-19 cases, some are turning their attention now to what comes next.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says that, if case numbers continue to stay low, he could present a plan next week to reopen the economy.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe speaks at a COVID-19 news update in Regina on March 18, 2020. (Michael Bell/Canadian Press)

Quebec is allowing some economic activity to resume: residential construction can start again, while a number of businesses — including landscaping, garden centres and auto garages — have been added to the list of those deemed essential.

But Quebec Premier François Legault got some pushback from parents and teachers when he mused last week about the possibility of opening schools before the planned return date of May 4. (Ontario Premier Doug Ford, meanwhile, announced Tuesday that school would not resume on May 4.)

Legault backtracked on reopening schools over the weekend, saying that it was just one of many possibilities being considered. On Tuesday, when Quebec reported its biggest spike in deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, he said there was no question of starting classes again in the short term.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke of an expansion of some economic activity over the summer while saying that pandemic measures such as physical distancing will remain the "new normal" until a vaccine is developed — something experts say could take 12 to 18 months.

On Tuesday, he said that while people want to know when they can go back to their lives, "the reality is it is going to be weeks still" and Canadians will have to keep up their physical distancing "for a good while."

Even those leaders who have talked about the next phase have pointed out that restarting the economy will have to happen gradually, in phases. This follows advice coming from public health officials — but it might also be a reflection of many Canadians' reluctance to move too far, too fast.

Canadians not ready to relax restrictions: polls

The latest results from a weekly tracking poll conducted by Léger for the Association for Canadian Studies suggests that a majority of Canadians want to see significant signs of progress before lifting restrictions and allowing a return to work.

In the field between April 9 and 12 and interviewing 1,508 Canadians online, the poll found 21 per cent of respondents don't want to see these measures relaxed until there is a COVID-19 vaccine. Another 29 per cent said they want to see at least two consecutive weeks with no new cases. Neither of those conditions is likely to be met in the next few months.

For 25 per cent of respondents, the restrictions should be lifted only after the emergence of new cases becomes "sporadic" and the health care system has demonstrated it can cope.

Just 19 per cent said they felt it would be appropriate to lift restrictions when "the pressure on the health care system has reduced and it is able to manage a moderate flow of new cases".

Only six per cent said they wanted the restrictions lifted right away.

This suggests that Canadians are not near a point where they're prioritizing the economy over the risks of a further spread of the novel coronavirus, despite significant numbers in the Léger poll reporting a loss of income as a result of the disease. This could be because 56 per cent of those polled feel the worst of the crisis is "yet to come," while only four per cent believe the worst is "behind us."

Other surveys reflect similar sentiments. A recent Ipsos/Global News poll found widespread support for stricter measures, with 85 per cent somewhat or strongly supporting stricter physical distancing rules enforced by law and 75 per cent in favour of limits on their own personal movement.

The size of the deficit doesn't seem to be a concern shared by many: the Ipsos poll reported that 84 per cent felt the prime minister could run "whatever size federal deficit" he deems necessary to beat back the pandemic.

Nanos Research found that 48.5 per cent of respondents in its four-week rolling poll cited the novel coronavirus as the most important national issue. Jobs and the economy trailed at 14 per cent — a figure virtually unchanged since the beginning of the year.

Politicians' patience being tested

The polls suggest Canadians are willing to be patient in order to get through this crisis. But will politicians show the same restraint?

The drumbeat of the electoral calendar encourages politicians to think in the short-term. While they might come to power with long-term goals in mind, those goals can only be achieved by staying in power. That means winning the next election — or maybe just the next news cycle.

The daily updates from political leaders, however, might give the impression that this pandemic is a day-to-day emergency, rather than one that can only be assessed weeks at a time. The press conferences put politicians in the uncomfortable position of being frequent bearers of bad news. The desire to have some good news to share might have gotten the better of Legault when he talked about opening up the schools early.

"Maybe the way I said [the truth] scared some people," he said, "and I'm sorry about that."

According to polls, many leaders around the world have improved their images over the course of the pandemic. All federal and provincial leaders have majority support for their handling of COVID-19. Some polls also have indicated a bump in support for the parties they lead.

In that context, it's possible that some leaders could be worried that today's plaudits for their crisis management will become tomorrow's blame for a collapsed economy.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that some pandemic measures, like physical distancing, might need to stay in place until a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

But the World Health Organization is warning countries against lifting restrictions too quickly. In new guidelines, it advises  countries to lift restrictions slowly and strategically only once they have evidence the virus has been contained and they're capable of detecting every case and tracing every contact — and if the risk of outbreaks in hospitals and nursing homes has been minimized. Many provinces won't meet those conditions for some time yet.

Other parts of the world are further along the curve of the disease than Canada. As some countries in Europe and Asia begin to lift restrictions and resume some regular economic activity, there will be lessons to learn from their experiences.

But while leaders and public health officials use these examples to help them decide what to do next, Canadians seem willing to keep waiting.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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