COVID-19 has closed restaurants in the Kootenay Boundary region and has seen summer bookings at hotels plummet as road-trip plans get nixed by provincial recommendations. The pandemic, thus far, appears to have taken a substantial toll on employment in the Kootenay Economic Region of the province, defined by Statistics Canada as an area encompassing the Kettle Valley, north through the Arrow Lakes and east to the Alberta border.
Since December 2019, employment in accommodation and food services has dropped 17 per cent across the region, leaving approximately 900 people without a job. Over the same period of time into early 2019, that industry grew by 20 per cent.
The retail sector was hit even harder. After growing between late 2018 and late 2019 by approximately 3,000 jobs, nearly the same number of employment opportunities in the industry were then lost over the last four months, with 1,200 being lost between February and April 2020.
Recognizing the severity of job losses on Boundary families and the local economy, local leaders gathered last week on a Zoom call with the Boundary Country Regional Chamber of Commerce (BCRCC) to discuss a revitalization plan for the region. As the province aims to re-open select services, businesses are looking for direction on how they can comply with the new rules.
“I am incredibly worried about our small businesses, without a doubt,” said Boundary-Similkameen MLA Linda Larson on Friday, while offering some guidance on how local stores can re-open safely.
“Have a written plan and be prepared to defend it,”she said. “[The province] wants you to do your plan according to the rules we’ve been living under for the last eight weeks.” B.C. has said that commercial operations need to be able to prove they are operating safely.
But while businesses can disinfect rigorously and enforce strict physical distancing measures between employees and clients, patrons will need to feel safe returning to familiar spaces again – something that may prove tougher for some who have whole-heartedly embraced the measures dictated by the provincial health officer.
“Customers have to be comfortable in trusting the business owners,” said Grand Forks mayor Brian Taylor on Friday’s online forum. Regional District of Kootenay Boundary (RDKB) director for Area D Roly Russell agreed, noting that a “re-opening is refreshing,” but businesses will have to balance the intensity of their contacts with the number of customers they encounter. A hair salon, for example, would represent higher incidents of close-contact, as compared to a take-away restaurant, though the latter may deal with more people.
The BCRCC is currently surveying Boundary businesses to get a sense of how intensely they’ve been hit by COVID-19-related measures, and what the organization can do to support recovery. The chamber is also expected to receive nearly $5,000 total in grant-in-aid from RDKB areas C and D to help support its members. That funding will be confirmed at an RDKB meeting this week.
While there have been calls to close B.C.’s border with Alberta to limit people bringing the virus into smaller communities, Boundary elected officials noted the importance of that province for the region’s economy.
“Quite frankly,” said RDKB Area C director Grace McGregor, “without Alberta we wouldn’t have the tourism dollars we have.” McGregor and Larson both emphasized the need to be patient with out-of-province licence plates and recognize that as industries continue to open slowly, more visitors will come.