‘We’re very cautious not to screw it up’: All eyes on Saskatchewan as businesses get OK to re-open

CALGARY – Jason Zalusky will be watching Saskatchewan’s coronavirus infection rates closely to determine whether or not he reopens his barber shop on May 19, as allowed under the plan Premier Scott Moe announced Thursday.

If any of his staff aren’t comfortable working in close quarters with clients by that date, Zalusky said, he would not force them to come back to work at Bluecore Barber Co. in central Regina.

“They’ll always have a spot there when they feel comfortable working,” he said, adding that his barbers, like others across the province, will be wearing masks, gloves, disinfecting all chairs and surfaces after every customer — who will also need to wear masks.

As a result, Saskatchewan shop owners like Zalusky aren’t expecting a return to business-as-usual as the province becomes the first in Canada to reopen its economy after the new coronavirus pandemic forced a shutdown.

On Thursday, Moe announced a five-phase plan to reopen business, beginning with medical services such as dentist offices on May 4, followed by outdoor recreation and golf courses on May 15. Phase 2 will allow retail, beauty and hair salons to open on May 19 with certain restrictions.

For example, there should be no more than 10 people in a store. Every item will need to be disinfected and, where possible, social distancing measures need to be continued.

There are still no timelines for reopening bars, restaurants, casinos or museums. Nor is there a timeline for when the province’s beloved CFL franchise, the Roughriders, can play as health authorities keep tabs on the number and trajectory of coronavirus infections in the province, which stood at 326 cases and four deaths Thursday morning.

“I know there are some that are concerned this is far too soon and that reopening business could increase the spread of COVID-19,” Moe said, adding that banks, liquor and grocery stores remained open during the pandemic without causing outbreaks.

“This gives us confidence that Saskatchewan businesses can reopen and keep their customers and their employees safe by maintaining similar practices,” Moe said, adding the province would adjust its plans as it monitors case numbers every day.

If Saskatchewan’s economy is able to reopen in an orderly way, it will serve as an example to the rest of the country for how harder-hit provinces can restart their economies, said Steve McLellan, CEO of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re very cautious not to screw it up,” McLellan said, adding he’s “very pleased” to see the phased plan announced.

I don’t think these sectors are big enough to turn the direction of the economy but it might just stop it from falling

Joel Bruneau, Economics Department head, University of Saskatchewan

While Saskatchewan hasn’t been hit as hard by the pandemic as other provinces, its economy is expected to be among the most affected.

TD Economics forecast Thursday that Saskatchewan’s GDP is expected to contract by 8.2 per cent this year as a result of the pandemic, which would make it the third-worst performing economy in Canada after Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador. The province’s unemployment rate would also climb to the third-highest level in the country this year, rising to 9.1 per cent from 5.4 per cent in 2019.

The province will fare better than Alberta because “Saskatchewan’s economy is more diversified, modestly lessening the hit from the oil price shock,” the economists at TD wrote in their report.

However, the outlook for potash is uncertain following the pandemic, said Joel Bruneau, head of the economics department at the University of Saskatchewan.

Potash is used as fertilizer around the world but farmers in such countries as India and China buy based on their expected earnings, and those farmers’ earnings are expected to fall. “Some farmers might not do potash this year and just rely on the minerals in the soil,” Bruneau said.

He expects the province’s unemployment rate could hold steady as businesses begin to reopen in the next month, but until Moe announces a timeline for phases 3, 4 and 5, he doesn’t expect the unemployment rate to start falling.

“I don’t think these sectors are big enough to turn the direction of the economy but what it might just do is just stop it from falling,” Bruneau said.

The fear is still there. It won’t be normal until we get the vaccine

Sam Sajjad, barbershop owner

More broadly speaking, the effectiveness of the plan to reopen Saskatchewan’s economy will be successful only in so far as the province is able to continue containing the virus — because consumers are not going to venture out to businesses, even if they’re open, if case numbers begin to rise.

“Opening up a restaurant if nobody is showing up is pointless,” Bruneau said.

Sam Sajjad, who owns Hollywood Hairdresser and Barbershop in Saskatoon, said he’s expecting a spike in business in the weeks immediately following his reopening date because many people stuck at home for weeks are getting shaggy and in need of a haircut. But after those first few weeks, he said, there may be concerns in Saskatchewan about spending money as the province’s economic outlook has worsened.

“I’m still anxious because there’s no vaccine yet. The fear is still there,” Sajjad said. “It won’t be normal until we get the vaccine.”

• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: geoffreymorgan

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