Saint John’s business community is bracing for the possibility of the region being moved to the red phase of COVID-19 restrictions after a recent outbreak in the city.
Public Health moved the region to orange phase Nov. 20 after the number of cases in the region, also known as Zone 2, doubled in a two-day period. At the time, Premier Blaine Higgs suggested it was possible the region and others could go to the red phase, the highest level of restrictions, in an effort to curb the outbreak.
But it is not red yet.
Italian By Night, a restaurant in uptown Saint John, was one of many in the community to close its dining room temporarily after the move to orange phase.
“Because it’s the right thing to do for our community and our staff,” said Italian By Night chef and part-owner Michelle Hooten. “When you think about it, a server or a bartender, is incredibly vulnerable because they are the closest to an unmasked person.”
Hooten said the restaurant had 250 client cancellations on Friday and Saturday after the imposition of tighter restrictions. She said some restaurants and businesses may not survive if the region goes red.
“One of the strengths that we had as a community in Saint John is that we had this amazing group, critical mass of fantastic restaurants,” Hooten said. “So it’s top-of-mind. I think about it every day.
“As long as we all comply, hopefully we all get through this together.”
David Duplisea, the CEO of The Chamber Saint John Region, said a shift to red phase could have devastating consequences in Saint John.
“By the time everything settles down and the dust settles and we get back to some kind of normalcy, we estimate that we could lose up to 30 per cent of the businesses in our region,” Duplisea said. “Particularly if we go red at this point.”
Duplisea said that estimate comes from surveys of the business community going back to the start of the pandemic in March, plus knowledge of businesses which have shifted to different models to accommodate restrictions, those that have laid off staff and other information from Statistics Canada.
“It’s concerning,” Duplisea said. “But we have to strive to do everything we can to help these businesses keep the lights on, and that includes urgent testing and rapid response. We need to be able to get this under control.”
Saint John Mayor Don Darling, who recently tested negative for COVID-19, said this week there is community support for a tighter lockdown. But in an email statement to Global News, he says the focus should be on helping the region get back to the yellow phase.
“Last Friday the province discussed the possibility that our region could go to red and that it would depend on the number of positive tests in the region,” Darling wrote. “Since Friday we’ve had lower case counts, the community has responded very well to public health guidelines and as per (New Brunswick Chief Medical Officer of Health) Dr. Russell the conditions have not been met to go to the Red Zone.”
Duplisea said he’s not hearing of any support for going red.
“I would hope that that kind of a narrative does not start to permeate in the community because that just spreads fear and uncertainty,” Duplisea said.
Hooten, a former deputy mayor of Saint John, said the community is coming together to overcome the latest hurdle in the pandemic.
“This is, hands-down, the proudest time of my life,” said an emotional Hooten. “And I actually get a little teary when I think about it. When I listen to other people, whether they’re business people or community people, it’s this feeling of solidarity that we are going to do this.”