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Omicron fears force Canadian businesses to prepare for the worst — another lockdown

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WATCH: Feds advise Canadians to avoid non-essential travel outside Canada – Dec 15, 2021

Renaldo Agostino has gotten used to the roller coaster ride that is the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Windsor entrepreneur, owner of Turbo Espresso Bar and events company Element Entertainment, is familiar with the negative impacts lockdowns have on his businesses, and the benefits loosened restrictions bring.

Read more: Spread of Omicron variant leading to more COVID-19 restrictions worldwide

But with the Omicron variant spreading in Canada, and with some jurisdictions moving to impose restrictions to limit its impact, Agostino is readying to ride another wave.

“When the highs are high, we’re going to be out there having fun, making money. When the lows are low, we’re going to watch our spending (and) shut everything down. … It’s been so long now that it’s no longer a question of, ‘What if?’” he told Global News.

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“I already know what’s going to happen. … It’s not like I’m inexperienced in shutting down. … It’s so ingrained in how we do business these days, it’s almost the new normal.”

Omicron restrictions

Cases of Omicron in Canada are rising, which has public health officials questioning whether to impose restrictions to limit community spread.

In Windsor, where Agostino’s businesses are, the public health unit re-introduced gathering restrictions last week and has ordered restaurants and bars to bring indoor capacity limits down again to 50 per cent.

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Trudeau says feds ‘very concerned’ over Omicron COVID-19 outlook – Dec 13, 2021

In New Brunswick, officials are ordering entertainment venues like movie theatres and casinos to operate at 50 per cent capacity starting Friday. In Nova Scotia, also as of Friday, food and liquor-licensed businesses must have physical distancing between tables and a limit of 20 people per table.

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Back in Ontario, Kingston officials have introduced a number of measures intended to last until Dec. 20. They include personal gathering limits of up to five people indoors and outdoors, and restaurants not being able to offer indoor dining between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Take-out is still permitted.

Chad Comfort, co-owner of Mermaid Avenue Sandwich Factory in Kingston, told Global News it has already seen dine-in business drop since Omicron’s arrival.

The business will be mostly relying on takeout now, he said, acknowledging the experience of going in and out of restrictions has prepared the shop for moments like these.

“We used to buy quite a bit of stock and supplies and always had a healthy amount on hand, (but now) we’re buying more often and a lot less because we don’t want anything to go bad on us in case there is a lockdown,” Comfort said.

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“We want to keep everything going on a small scale.”

Are new restrictions coming to Canada?

On Monday, Canada’s chief public health officer warned that community spread of Omicron could ramp up in the coming days, potentially outpacing the Delta variant for the dominant strain of the virus in the country.

Dr. Theresa Tam said if infections keep rising and if Omicron takes hold, new cases could be up to 26,600 a day nationally by mid-January.

Currently, in Canada, Ontario and Quebec are driving new case growth. In Ontario on Tuesday, the province reported 1,429 new infections while Quebec logged 1,747 new cases.

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With those numbers in play, Dr. Isaac Bogoch feels more jurisdictions will impose restrictions.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if across the country you start to see more and more of that as we see greater community transmission and case numbers rise,” the infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital told Global News.

“I think the writing’s on the wall that the public health teams are thinking about that.”

However, with 76 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, Canadian regions might not see full-scale lockdowns unless hospital systems overflow with patients, said Matthew Miller, associate professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences at McMaster University.

Read more: Omicron COVID variant is ‘scary,’ Trudeau says, but summer will be ‘better’

While lockdowns are effective at reducing community transmission, governments should focus on getting booster shots into high-risk populations quickly, such as the immunocompromised and seniors, he said.

“We’re in a very different place now than we were a year ago in the sense that last year at this point, almost no one had been vaccinated,” Miller said.

“The question will really be: How do we protect our hospital capacity? Certainly, third doses in the highest-risk populations are going to be very helpful for that. We really need to make sure we’re ramping up and getting those doses into everyone 50-plus as quickly as possible.”

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Governments across Canada have been doing just that. In Ontario, adults 50 and older can now get booster shots and starting Jan. 4, all those 18 and older will be able to get an extra dose.

Alberta has also announced a wide-expansion of booster doses, where Albertans 18 and older can get extra shots in the new year.

In addition to booster shots, governments should be making COVID-19 rapid testing more available to the public, said Nitin Mohan, assistant professor in the global health systems program at Western University.

“Rapid testing needs to be affordable, and in some cases just made free because I think our main focus should be protecting our health systems and communities right now,” he said.

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COVID-19: No new measures in Saskatchewan while Alberta limits large events amid Omicron – Dec 22, 2021

Bogoch agrees, adding rapid testing can be used for indoor functions as an extra layer of protection in addition to vaccination and improved ventilation, for example.

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“‘If everyone tests negative before they come, that will add an additional level of safety,” he said. “They’re not perfect, but they’re really good.”

In Nova Scotia, the province recently made rapid testing kits available for pick up at libraries. In Ontario, school children are receiving rapid test kids to take home over the holiday break.

Read more: Pfizer’s vaccine 70% effective against hospitalization from Omicron, study says

Only time will tell what will happen over the holidays, but protecting hospitals must be a priority, Mohan said.

“Our hospital systems have been stretched beyond their capacities for over a year and a half now,” he said.

“Asking them to prepare for another wave would have negative impacts on our society as a whole.”

‘We have to learn how to pivot'

Back in Windsor and Kingston, both Agostino and Comfort are adjusting to business under restrictions once again.

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“We have to learn how to pivot,” Agostino said.

“I’m a career nightclub owner who shifted into the coffee business because of COVID. It’s either you shift or you find something else to do with your life.”

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As for Comfort, he worries about how the rising cost of food will impact his sandwich shop this time around.

“We’ve been through this before, but it’s the inflation that’s really scaring me because the price jump … it’s really cutting into your bottom dollar,” Comfort said.

“Inflation is sending some of these prices sky-high, (and) you’re not going to maybe be offering a full menu as you were before because you’re not going to be buying roast beef if it’s costing an arm and a leg.”

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— with files from Jamie Mauracher

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