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Low vaccination rates hamper releasing brakes on restrictions: chamber executive director

Chamber executive director Tom Thomson said that low vaccination rates — around 78 per cent with the first dose — have excluded Nelson along with the West and East Kootenay and the Okanagan in a return to full capacity (with the proper protocols) — file photo.

While the rest of the province might be enjoying full capacity in its restaurants, theatres and sporting events, the Kootenay along with the rest of Interior Health region are still restricted, the chamber executive director says.

Tom Thomson said that low vaccination rates — around 78 per cent with the first dose — have excluded Nelson along with the West and East Kootenay and the Okanagan in a return to full capacity (with the proper protocols).

In a report on the Nelson business community, delivered to city council Tuesday night during the committee-of-the-whole meeting, Thomson said the region was singled out with a red light and continued restrictions while the province turned on the green light elsewhere.

“In the Interior Health it is still an issue and some of it has to do with low vaccination rates,” he said. “So many businesses in Nelson and area have been struggling to return to profitability.”

But the restrictions are having a negative impact on Kootenay businesses. In the last BC Chamber of Commerce pulse check for the Kootenay region it was discovered that 21 per cent of businesses reported that they were in poor shape.

The pandemic has had a significant and even devastating impact on those small businesses with some sectors — notably tourism, food and beverage, live performance arts and theatres — have not yet fully recovered.

Around 77 per cent reported operating costs increasing within the last year, while 52 per cent reported decreased sales volume and 42 per cent reported reduced staff hours. There were around 15 per cent reported as in good shape, while 35 per cent were in very good shape.

“So, things are not great but they are getting better,” said Thomson.

As the Kootenay economy attempts to right itself there is still a problem with rehiring workforce labour — a situation plaguing businesses across the province and country.

It’s hard for the service industry to rehire people who don’t have a need to work, said Darren Davidson, who was contracted by the chamber to liaise with the business community in the city.

“The gut feeling amongst quite a few of the people you talk to is once these employment programs run out, like CERB, that everybody is just going to come back to work, because what else are they going to do? But that remains to be seen,” he told council.

Davidson related that the consensus in the business community is that we are rounding a little bit of a curve toward a return to normalcy. But what that normalcy looks like is debatable, said Coun. Jesse Woodward.

There is a feeling that we just have to get back to what was but we don’t know when and if that will happen, he said.

“Plan for when normalization happens again but also plan for instability which is kind of the name of the game these days,” he said.

He asked Thomson if business owners had the understanding that the current instability may just be the new normal.

“Adaptation has to happen continuously instead of hoping, hoping, for that time when it’s all gone and we can just throw our masks away and it’s all normal again,” he said. “I’m worried that people are just focused on that and that it if doesn’t happen it could just be heartbreaking.

“We all want to get back to normal. But that’s what everybody else is going to have to get to, saying that ‘this is our new normal.’”

Centre stage

Coun. Keith Page asked Thomson if there were any major events planned for the winter season that would help give people some light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

“Are we putting up a slate of activities that we can pull off in a COVID-safe way, in compliance with the public health orders, so that our community can get out a little bit and not be so isolated?” he asked. “Because that’s one of the manifesting issues we are seeing right now is that isolation is getting to people and we need opportunities for some fun.”

Thomson said nothing such as a winterfest has been planned, and the chamber gala has been scrapped for the second straight year.

“There was too much uncertainty and limits were still pretty restrictive and it just wasn’t quite right to be able to do it,” he said about the gala.

“It’s really tricky trying to plan an event right now because you plan and do all of the work and you don’t know if you are going to get shut down, or something else happens.”

But it will happen eventually, Thomson added, and major events in the region will come back.

Backing the patio

The chamber was requesting, by letter, that council further extend the temporary patio bylaw into 2022.

“The Chamber of Commerce board and staff respectfully request council approve the temporary patio bylaw for April through October 2022,” the letter read.

The temporary patio bylaw was brought in last year and was really good for Nelson, Thomson stated.

“We don’t think we could make the patio bylaw a permanent one since it changes liquor licences, rules and regulations, square footage and washroom requirements,” said Thomson.

Although council heard Thomson’s question on extending the patio season, no decision was made at a meeting — the matter will be placed on council’s next regular meeting agenda.