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Andrew Wadden: To bubble or not to bubble?

Water Street in St. John’s appeared a little busier Thursday after the province went to Alert Level 2. Diners and pedestrians took advantage of the sun and warm weather to stroll the downtown and eat at some of the restaurants, including ones with outdoor patios. - Keith Gosse/The Telegram
Water Street in St. John’s appeared a little busier Thursday after the province went to Alert Level 2. Diners and pedestrians took advantage of the sun and warm weather to stroll the downtown and eat at some of the restaurants, including ones with outdoor patios. - Keith Gosse/The Telegram

The answer seems to vary based on who you speak with and what their situation is — but it’s a popular debate to have these days, and if you’re looking to light a fire under someone, it’s the question to ask.

Andrew Wadden, 2020 Chair of the St. John's Board of Trade
Andrew Wadden, 2020 Chair of the St. John's Board of Trade

In my view, it’s not realistic for our province to stay closed until a vaccine comes along and, moreover, we cannot shut down again to the extent we have when the virus slips back in.

We must take this “virus-free” time we have to plan, such that if and when it comes back our economy and vital public services such as health care can function closer to normal levels than during the lock down from which we are now emerging. As I’ve said before, an economic reopening and keeping our COVID-19 numbers low with hospitals not overrun, do not have to be mutually exclusive goals.

For me, the Atlantic Bubble discussion begs another question: is this the conversation we should most concern ourselves with right now? Are we ready to entertain regional issues before we have adequately dealt with other real and significant issues that are plaguing the Newfoundland and Labrador business community?

Our members are currently working through plans for re-opening. They’re figuring out how to bring employees back to work — which is proving to be tough because of challenges such as lack of child care, conflicting advice from subject matter experts, varying employee perceptions of health risks and competing wage subsidies. Returning employees also need to be kept safe, and as such, plans are being developed and personal protective equipment is being secured to ensure their health and safety.

Similarly, businesses are devising plans for how to conduct business in this new world and bring back customers.

Doing this safely and at the same time managing variables that change on a seemingly daily basis is requiring inventive thinking and a willingness to try new things. It also requires that employers, employees and customers behave in new ways. I am in awe of what our business community has accomplished in such a short amount of time, and the ingenuity and determination that has been demonstrated to keep business going and to keep customers served — from moving business online, to offering curb-side pick-up and telephone order-taking, our business community responded to the challenge quickly.

But we’re not out of this yet. We’re not done with fresh thinking and innovation. And, we’re nowhere near going back to the way things were.

What must we do now? Now is the time to continue to rethink how we do things and to set ourselves, our businesses and our community up for long-term survival. We cannot emerge from a second wave of COVID-19 to see even more store fronts bordered shut with brown paper and For Lease signs — we cannot let it happen.

We must use this time, right now, to shore-up the future and be ready for the looming second wave, and whatever new challenges are thrown at us. We must and can be prepared to ride the second wave differently than before, and in a way that does not force automatic closures and that doesn’t bring operations to a grinding halt.

And, our business community cannot do this alone.

Developing and implementing measures now to withstand the future unknowns is going to require support — the support of employees, customers, our community and of course, government. All must act quickly. Let’s create the environment of understanding and patience to both deliver and receive products and services differently. And perhaps one of the most critical actions that we must take now is to collaborate — our economy is stronger when it’s diversified and when it’s competitive. Sharing intel, best practices and lessons of survival with others will position us to rebound and accelerate our reopening and ultimately the stabilization of our economy. The St. John’s Board of Trade is a catalyst for this and we will continue to share the successes of our members and create learning opportunities so we are positioned to succeed. We will continue to work with all levels of government.

To bubble or not to bubble? That’s not the only question, and the answer may not matter if we haven’t worked together to create the environment for our business community to survive and thrive.

Andrew Wadden is the 2020 Chair of the St. John’s Board of Trade, and a partner with Wadden Peddigrew Hogan Law. He also teaches business law at MUN’s Faculty of Business.

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