January 8, 2022 – Ontario has once again instituted “temporary measures” as a reaction to the highly contagious Omicron variant. Nearly two years into COVID-19, there isn’t a “post-pandemic” finish line in sight, and it certainly won’t appear in the next two weeks.
Living through a fifth wave, we owe it to businesses, families and front-line health care and essential workers to address the real problem of the day. We need long-term, nuanced plans to live with the virus while still allowing people to gather, work, create and live.
As the voice of the region’s businesses and a champion for its urban prosperity, we at the Toronto Region Board of Trade call on every order of government to work together to avoid any future lockdowns and embrace the realities of our situation by doing the following.
Address that the virus is airborne
Create programs to support and incentivize businesses to install hospital-grade ventilation and filtration systems that increase the delivery of clean air and dilute potential contaminants — wise investments already made by our local transit agencies. We should also require CO2 monitors to be publicly displayed in places where masks are removed and educate people on the need to start using high-quality masks like KN95s, providing them free of charge for widespread adoption.
Enhance public health guidance and measures
Too often businesses are left to decide for themselves how to operate safely, forced to choose between being overly cautious or potentially risky when it comes to managing staff and interacting with customers.
Governments should issue clear, consistent guidance on capacity limits, physical distancing and proof of vaccination for all businesses. As we at the board have been saying since July 2021, this should include a requirement that all in-person workers are fully vaccinated or return a negative rapid test before each shift. And, two years in, can we not adapt our immunization QR code systems to also enable digital contact tracing and exposure notification?
Additionally, a robust vaccination program and reliable access to testing are all tools to mitigate future outbreaks. We need government-backed systems that build our capacity to deliver all these programs reliably over the coming months and years, not two-week temporary measures.
Create predictable models for support
To date, governments roll out temporary, ad hoc supports for businesses as each wave of cases brought new restrictions and changes in consumer behaviour. This leaves business owners unsure if each grant, loan, subsidy or deferral will be their last. Governments must work together to implement supports that will be in place over a longer period, with clear information about how they’ll phase in and out as cases rise and fall.
Plan for debt relief
Much short-term support given to businesses has been deferrals on rents, taxes or other expenses. These deferrals have helped many businesses remain open, but they’ve also saddled owners with substantial debt.
Businesses need assurance that there is a plan to retire debt accumulated over the pandemic. This program should be designed in advance and with care to ensure it is deployed to enable the recovery of businesses with strong fundamentals that would be succeeding but for the pandemic.
Within these past two years, our region has made outstanding progress: the resilience of businesses in adopting new digital models and remote work where possible; the amazing response of scientific and health care workers to understand and treat the virus; our communities coming together to embrace vaccines and support each other. But our work is not done.
Let’s use this progress as a strong foundation to build a new response to COVID-19. One that will span years—not two weeks—into the future and that allows us, after holding our breath for a return to normal, to finally exhale.
Jan De Silva is the president and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade.
This op-ed was originally published in the Toronto Star.
About the Toronto Region Board of Trade
The Toronto Region Board of Trade is one of the largest and most influential business chambers in North America and is a catalyst for the region’s economic agenda. We pursue policy change to drive the growth and competitiveness of the Toronto region and facilitate market opportunities with programs, partnerships and connections to help our members succeed – domestically and internationally.
Andrew Perez, Media Relations Manager