As we approach the end of 2021 and take stock of the previous year, in many ways it was more challenging than 2020 for individuals and businesses in New Brunswick. COVID-19 fatigue has set in for even the most resilient of us and the hope that we felt this time last year that we were about to put the pandemic behind us has been replaced by uncertainty – particularly the emerging Omicron variant, which has caused us to slide back into further restrictions. The level of uncertainty driven by a dynamic public health situation recalls the famous Dwight Eisenhower quote: “plans are nothing, planning is everything.” Businesses and non-profit organizations have been in a constant state of planning over the past two years as COVID-19 has spread and mutated, waves have come and gone, and related Public Health measures have been changed.
It may seem that the pandemic and associated restrictions on our day-to-day lives are endless – but it’s important to remember that it really won’t last forever, and better days are ahead. It’s hard to maintain perspective when we’re in the thick of it and the end isn’t known. The move to Level 1 ½ last week was a big blow for restaurants, entertainment venues, accommodations, and others – given that many rely on these couple of weeks before the holidays to generate income to get through lean winter months. This announcement came just a week after the government announced an unexpected $2.00 per hour increase to the minimum wage, increasing costs and exacerbating the challenges ahead in 2022. Additionally, New Brunswick has dramatically lagged behind other provinces in direct financial support to businesses throughout the pandemic. That may have been justifiable when COVID has barely on our radar and the Atlantic Bubble was in full swing, but no longer. We’ve again recently asked the government to step forward to help these businesses, especially given that most federal programs have been wound down.
Last summer Atlantic Canada was the envy of the world with our low case counts and few restrictions – times have changed and many business owners in our communities are struggling to maintain their operations in a regulatory environment that is constantly shifting under their feet. While the debt-to-GDP ratio, provincial surpluses and other economic indicators have exceeded expectations, we should continue to remember that the pandemic has been very uneven and some sectors booming and driving up our overall numbers doesn’t mean much to small businesses that are struggling.
But there are reasons for optimism.
First and foremost, our citizens have done an incredible job stepping up to support local businesses throughout the pandemic and it is essential that this spirit of investing in our own communities. A dollar spent at a locally-owned business circulates 4.6 times more than a dollar spent elsewhere – that makes a real impact. We often talk about how governments would not have a penny in their coffers without private business, but it is equally true that we wouldn’t have private business without loyal customers and the patronage of our fellow citizens, and I know without individuals doubling down on their local efforts, there are businesses that might not have made it two years into a pandemic. On behalf of local businesses – thank you to New Brunswickers.
I’m also encouraged that the provincial and federal governments have come to an agreement on childcare funding in New Brunswick. That program will allow more people to enter the workforce and help address one of business’ biggest current challenges. Similarly, the Province’s focus on access to primary health care in their health reform plan is welcomed and aligns with one of our chamber’s key priorities, where the issue is most acute in Fredericton. Access to primary care must be easy and efficient – it provides better health outcomes for patients and less strain on the system than relying on emergency care.
We need these reforms now more than ever since our population has grown through the pandemic and we have the chance to leverage this momentum into more sustainable growth. It is notable that this growth has occurred despite the challenges faced by the immigration system during the pandemic, our population has grown due to interprovincial migration that we hadn’t seen in many years – a good sign that people are looking to New Brunswick as a place to work and live. We have challenges to address such as housing to make that a reality, but attracting attention is the first step and we’ve done that.
Finally – the pandemic will end. It’s not yet clear how or when, but it will end. One day we will look back at this time as a distant memory and maybe not laugh, but perhaps collectively sigh and hope we don’t have to do this again for another 100 years. In the meantime, let’s be empathetic to one another, be kind to employees tasked with enforcing government regulations and be mindful about supporting our local communities – now and always.
Krista Ross is CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, a nationally accredited organization with more than 1,000 members, is an active business organization engaged in policy development and advocacy that affects the competitiveness of our members and the Canadian business environment. The Chamber’s vision is ‘Stronger Community Through Business Prosperity’.