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Nova Scotians will learn today whether and when Premier Stephen McNeil will ease restrictions to allow people from provinces outside Atlantic Canada to visit without being required to self-isolate for 14 days. On a telephone conference call following yesterday’s meeting of Cabinet ministers, the premier said he would be discussing that topic with the three other Atlantic premiers last night. McNeil made it clear Nova Scotia also has the option to “go it alone.”
“We opened the Atlantic bubble at the same time two weeks ago,” said McNeil. “We all said when that happened we would like to open up to Canada at the same time and each province will have to assess that. We will have ongoing conversations and if we can achieve and land on a date together, that’s great. If not, we as a province will assess and make our own decision about when we open up to the rest of Canada.”
Although families have been reunited, anecdotal reports from restaurant and hotel owners suggest the easing of the border restrictions has so far done very little to convince people to eat out or book an overnight stay. Nova Scotia Business Minister Geoff MacLellan confirmed the 2020 tourism season has so far been a dud.
“It’s scary what I’m hearing from the tourism industry association and the restaurant and hotel associations,” said MacLellan. “Things are slow and it is extremely worrying. But this is where we thought we might be and the feedback I’ve received is that these businesses value government programs such as the wage subsidy and other safety nets to help stay afloat. Every day they hope more people will start to go out.”
Despite separating tables and masking their employees to comply with public health protocols, MacLellan said restaurants who had “relative success” with their takeout business during the months of confinement still aren’t seeing many customers willing to dine-in.
Earlier this week in New Brunswick, the Higgs government announced residents could claim 20% rebates for leisure travel expenses up to a maximum of $1,000 through the summer and fall. The hope is to encourage its citizens to get out and spend money to support local tourism operators. Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston has proposed a similar incentive (a $200 tax credit for the first tax filer and another $100 for each dependent) but it’s not an idea McNeil is prepared to embrace.
“We are encouraging Nova Scotians to travel within the province,” said McNeil. “Rewarding those who actually can afford to go out and play, whether it’s a round of golf or any other aspect, doesn’t seem to make sense to me. We will continue to look at the initiatives we have with businesses to help them.”
NDP leader Gary Burrill agrees with the premier on this issue. But both Burrill and Houston blame what they call the province’s “inconsistent policies” around masking in public and screening travellers from outside the region for the disappointing uptick in the hospitality business.
“People are still nervous and we need clarity from the government,” said Houston. “There are so many mixed messages that people are receiving. On the one hand, you have the premier saying he wants people to get out and see the province and visit the restaurants. On the other hand, the premier says it’s not safe for him to be in the same room with reporters.” (That’s a reference to the fact all McNeil’s news conferences are still being conducted over the telephone with journalists who are limited to a couple of questions despite requests from reporters for some in-person meetings that would respect physical distancing or require masks).
“A combination of clear confident messaging from the government about what people can safely do when complying with Public Health directives and then a small incentive to go out and do it, that’s what is needed to support our tourism industry at this time,” said Houston.
Nova Scotia currently has only two active cases of COVID-19, including a hospitalized person identified this Wednesday by Public Health officials who are actively investigating to try and determine the source of the virus. Senior Public Health officials have stated new cases are “inevitable” with the easing of border restrictions. They also have said any new clusters can be “contained” if the provinces put money into boosting contact tracing and expanding laboratory testing.
Yesterday, the federal government announced about $250 million would flow to Nova Scotia to pay for such supports — as well as an increase for mental health and addictions services — to try to lessen the consequences of opening up the economy. The money is part of a $19 billion federal program called the “Safe Re-Start” program. Vulnerable populations, including residents in long-term care, will also be eligible for some unspecified portion of the federal money.
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