Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s desire to keep small businesses afloat and the economy open through the pandemic – even as COVID-19 cases soar – is evident in his government’s budget.
Unfortunately, there is a fatal flaw in Ford’s approach. It won’t work.
In the spring, the first-wave lockdown in Ontario targeted those businesses where people gather – bars, restaurants, gyms and banquet halls. This makes sense. We all know the virus spreads by close contact. It spreads in crowds. It spreads more easily indoors than outdoors. The longer the contact between people, the greater the chance of infection.
When reopening began this summer, businesses bent over backwards to reduce the risk to their customers, and many customers came back. But now, as winter approaches and the number of new cases heads higher every day, those summer measures aren’t enough.
Government can legislate for people to stay out of businesses where they’re at higher risk of contracting the virus, but it can’t force them to step inside. Even with no restrictions at all, a large percentage of customers will fear for their safety and stay home as the number of COVID cases rise. And that will prove fatal for many businesses.
Small businesses in the service industry run on slim margins at the best of times. To stay above water, they need their customers. Not 50 per cent of them. Not 70 per cent of them. All of them.
Toronto actor and musician Raoul Bhaneja noted last week: “Those of us in the ‘congregation business’ will see collapse until large groups of people can safely hang out indoors.”
In other words, if we really want to help small businesses, the only acceptable target for new COVID-19 cases is zero.
With Ontarians now dying at the rate of 100 a week, it seems obvious that we are in a public health emergency. Yet the premier continues to talk about striking a “happy balance” between protecting public health and boosting the economy.
There is no such thing as a happy balance when death is on one side of the scale. COVID-19 is an ongoing mass casualty event, but it is hard to detect any sense of urgency coming from the government.
On Monday, the premier spent two minutes of a news conference talking enthusiastically about how much he loves pets and telling a story about how he helped a constituent get her dog euthanized.
Meanwhile, Ontarians and Ontario businesses, are dying, too.
If we want to save lives and businesses, tackling COVID-19’s second wave will require a commitment of public resources on a scale with what happened in the first wave. It will require more aggressive testing and contact tracing. It will require more restrictions on business and public gatherings, which local medical officers of health in Peel and Toronto are already ordering.
It will demand more government support for businesses and their workers – especially when those businesses are completely closed. If we want to save small business, Queen’s Park has plenty of room to do more.
According to the latest Ontario budget, a typical small business receiving government support for rent, wages and hydro will get four out of five dollars of that support from existing federal programs, not the province.
The financial cost is acceptable. The daily death toll is not.
It’s time for our premier to treat the pandemic like the emergency it is.
“The virus punishes half-heartedness” German chancellor Angela Merkel noted earlier this month. Yet half-hearted measures – in the name of balance – are exactly what we’re seeing from Queen’s Park.
This won’t save lives, and it won’t save businesses either. It’s the wrong way to go.