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Local businesses clamour under weight of latest COVID guidelines

With over 20,000 active COVID-19 cases in the province and an announcement from Premier Jason Kenney introducing a new proof of vaccination program, many local businesses are clambering to figure out a solution to keep their operations afloat.
Curry 'N' Fizz is located at 519 1 Street in Historic Downtown Cochrane. Owners, husband and wife Saurabh Joshi and Shweta Sethi, said they will be implementing the provincial government's new proof of vaccination program to keep their restaurant afloat. (Photo submitted)

A recent COVID-19 update from the Alberta government is putting local business owners between a rock and a hard place again.

The province has over 20,000 active COVID-19 cases as of Sept. 19 and a state of public health emergency has been issued. Premier Jason Kenney introduced new measures to combat the spread of the virus beginning Sept. 20, including a Restriction Exemption Program (REP) that allows indoor dining for customers who show proof of vaccination. Implementing the REP is being left in the hands of business owners to implement if they choose.

Cochrane currently has 100 active cases of the virus and Rocky View County is reporting 160 as of Sept. 19, according to Alberta Health Services.

Owners of Curry 'N’ Fizz, husband and wife Saurabh Joshi and Shweta Sethi, feel as though their hands are tied despite the Restriction Exemption Program (REP) being optional. Restaurants will once again only allow for outdoor dining, unless they implement the REP. In Joshi and Sethi’s case, they cannot set up a patio due to space limitations.  

“The last nine months have told me that restricting our business to just take-out hits our bottom line,” Joshi said. “We lose somewhere up to 25-30 per cent straight away. That’s where we were breaking even, that’s why I say we have to adhere to this REP, Restriction Exemption Program. We will have to ask people for their vaccination proof or negative test results, unfortunately.”

Curry 'N’ Fizz opened in December 2020 in the middle of the pandemic. Despite the tumultuous timing, Joshi said Cochrane has been good to them. While the topic of vaccines and vaccination passports has been contentious, he hopes patrons will understand their decision to keep customers and staff safe.  

“We know we started up in turbulent times and we have managed to stay afloat through these wild currents,” he said. “We have made it through so far and I’m just hoping the town continues supporting us. I just hope our customers understand that we are not left with any other option. All scientific evidence leads to the fact that vaccines provide a large barrier of protection against this deadly virus. There is a different school of thought of those who think otherwise, so I’m just hoping we don’t end up antagonizing people.”

One question that still lingers in Joshi's mind is how they will actually enforce the program. They will likely need to dedicate one member of their small staff to monitor entry but are unclear how to ensure validity of vaccination proof, negative test results or medical exemptions. The issue of dealing with upset customers and potentially endangering staff is another concern.

A press release from Spray Lake Sawmills Family Sports Centre (SLSFSC) CEO Blair Felesky initially indicated they would be enacting the REP, including restricting access to the facility for unvaccinated youth ages 12 to 18, which would include youth athletic programs such as Cochrane Minor Hockey.

The following day an update was released stating that youth between the ages of 12 and 18 would instead be exempt from the REP if they are enrolled in an organized sport that uses the facility. The release said the move is in line with the organization’s goal of supporting youth sports while staying within the framework of provincial health guidelines.  

All staff, spectators and adult sport participants in Sawmills Family Sports Centre must show proof of vaccination of one or more dose that was received more than two weeks before entering the premises, until Oct. 25 when they will require proof of double vaccination as per the REP requirements.

A negative test result or a medical exemption may also allow entry to the Cochrane Arena or SLSFSC premises.

Without implementing the REP the facility would only be able to operate under 30 per cent capacity which Felesky describes as “operationally irresponsible and unsustainable.”

He said adjusting to the COVID rules is complicated. 

“(It is the) proverbial Rubik’s cube – solvable, but takes time as each condition is unique from the previous, as complex as it might seem simple to some,” he said.

SLSFSC sales and marketing manager Michelle Everett said limiting their capacity didn’t seem like the right thing to do.

“To be frank, Alberta has declared this as a state of public health emergency,” she said. “We feel that this would be the easiest to manage and that the best choice for our membership and for our community, is a place to feel safe and to continue with their health and wellness activities with our centre.”

Throughout the pandemic, SLSFSC put limits on classes, capacities and spectators along with other mandates such as masks and physical distancing.

“Our goal by taking this firm stance now is that we can get to the end much sooner,” Everett said. “We talked to our fellow [fitness and recreation] centres in the province and we’re looking at what other companies are doing and who’s getting on board with this and we feel that the majority is doing that, probably for a lot of the same reasons we are.”

Karrie Pearce, owner of Heavenly Outhouse boutique, said that during a polarizing time most people can agree on the lack of accountability from Premier Jason Kenney and the provincial government, especially on the issue of vaccine passports.

“I haven’t met a single person, vaccinated or unvaccinated who agrees that business owners should be the enforcers of political policy,” she said. “It’s just wrong all the way through, so on that I think it unites both sides and that’s the only good thing about it, is that we come together. The thing that really bothers me the most about this is that our own Premier, just a few months ago, said it is completely against the law for us to ask for private health information. And now we’re being asked as business owners to ask our customers for their private health information and our employees.”

Pearce said she was in attendance for a rally with hundreds of others protesting against the vaccine mandates in Calgary Sept. 18. The same rally was attended by local federal candidates, including People’s Party of Canada candidate Nadine Wellwood and independent candidate Derek Sloan, who spoke at the event. 

“There was a common consensus that it is absolutely wrong for us to be threatening people’s livelihoods if they don’t follow pressure from the government to make a medical choice that is theirs and theirs alone,” Pearce said.

She recently opened another establishment called Poor David’s in Salmon Arm, B.C., where the provincial government mandated vaccine passports earlier this month. Pearce said she can’t help but compare the way the two governments have handled the issue.

“To see how people are coming together and pressuring their politicians to throw down these mandates and just say ‘business owners cannot be the ones enforcing these things’ has been really interesting, she said. We’re finding that bringing people together over that issue is making a huge difference and we’re weeks ahead in B.C. than we are in Alberta.”

Pearce will not be implementing the proof of vaccination program at Heavenly Outhouse and said she will never involve herself in either her employees' or customers' private health information.

“We follow the mandates,” she said. “My customers and my employees will decide for themselves what is the right choice for them and I will never get involved in that.”