Amid pressure from the business community, Premier Rankin accelerates Nova Scotia’s reopening plan

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group of influential business leaders is claiming victory after Premier Iain Rankin announced a plan to reopen the Atlantic Bubble a week early and gave a specific date for when other Canadians can come to the province.

The stepped up, more precise schedule comes a little more than a week after more than 110 frustrated business elites and others banded together and blasted the premier over his “highly conservative” plan to reboot the economy as a third-wave flareup in COVID-19 cases showed signs of getting under control.

During a Tuesday afternoon COVID press conference with Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang, Rankin bristled at the notion he was making any substantial changes from what he’d previously outlined. “We’re advancing the Atlantic piece one week early based on conversations I had to try to get to a consistent date with our neighbouring provinces,” he said.

The Atlantic Bubble is opening June 23. Canadian residents from outside the four Atlantic provinces will be allowed to enter Nova Scotia no later than July 14.

A handful of business leaders decided to form the Nova Scotia Business Alliance after concerns from many in the business community about Rankin’s re-opening strategy appeared to fall on deaf ears. In no time, more than 70 added their names to the list.

The alliance reached out informally to the premier. After failing to generate a response, it followed up with a letter dated June 3 urging him to come up with a clearer re-opening strategy amid worries about the province’s economy.

“The Nova Scotia re-opening plan has created considerable confusion, frustration, and anxiety … particularly in the tourism, hospitality, and small business sectors,” the letter says. “The plan’s lack of clarity, lack of flexibility, and highly conservative approach are concerns that are being echoed throughout our networks. We need this government to fully understand the catastrophic impact the current plan will have on our economy and coveted tourism industry.”

When the alliance still got no response, it issued a press release Friday, blasting the premier publicly.

Robert Zed

Serial entrepreneur Robert Zed, a spokesperson for the group, says they agreed to stand down after receiving a request that night from the government asking for more time.

The premier addressed most of their concerns Tuesday. On top of an early Atlantic Bubble and specific date to open borders to the rest of Canada, Rankin unveiled $18.2 million in new funding to help the tourism sector woo customers.

He showed two video clips from an ad campaign designed to encourage Nova Scotians to explore their home turf. The support comes after the alliance pointed to neighbouring New Brunswick’s offer of 20% tourism rebates for any Atlantic Canadian vacationing in that province.

Zed tells Halifax Magazine the group is satisfied Rankin met their goals.

“We have heard from many, many members, all of whom are delighted their voice was heard and they have had an impact on the decision,” he says. “Our focus is on the safety of our citizens and the reactivation of our economy. We are not looking for a confrontation. We are looking for collaboration and a solution.”

Among the business people behind the campaign are realtor Carolyn Davis Stewart, pollster-cum-newspaper columnist Don Mills, Ambassatours owner Dennis Campbell, developer Donnie Clow, french fry heiress and recent Peggys Cove property purchaser Eleanor McCain, Stanfield’s Ltd. boss Jon Stanfield and his wife/retail owner Sue Stanfield, gold mining magnate Fred George, seafood and Caribbean communications billionaire John Risley and his brother restaurateur Robert Risley, car dealership kingpin Rob Steele, serial entrepreneur and financier Wade Dawe, Atlantic Road Construction CEO Tom Hickey, marketing pro Phil Otto, real-estate developer Joe Metlege, and Sean Murray, CEO of Advocate Media (which publishes Halifax Magazine).

Zed says they simply couldn’t understand the government’s decisions. “We weren’t feeling like we were properly heard.”

The alliance says its members own businesses that employ more than 30,000 workers around the province. Zed says he, and the other business leaders, don’t have a particular vested interest in the re-opening, adding that his local event-planning business “is gone.”

“I’m doing this because I’m worried about the province and its future,” he says.

Taye Landry, another spokesperson for the alliance, does have direct skin in the game. Her spin studio Spinco locations in downtown Halifax and Bedford got slammed by the latest shutdown. She says her business, which employs more than 100 people, lost more than $1 million in revenue over the last year.

“It’s completely heartbreaking,” she says. “It’s pushing people out. They don’t believe in the leadership right now. They need to go where they can make money … My demographic is younger. The younger generation is not scared of COVID. They want to be able to pay their bills and right now they’re not able to.”

Her studios got some big relief Tuesday. Gyms are now allowed to operate at 50% capacity as Phase Two of the re-opening goes into effect. Also permitted now are in-restaurant dining, higher capacity at stores, and an indoor gathering limit increase to 10 people without physical distancing and masks. 

Further re-opening phases will be addressed in two-week increments and depend on continued low case counts, vaccination uptake, and testing for community spread.

Rankin said he plans to stick with a strategy to protect against spread of new cases and asked for patience.

A more aggressive re-open won’t do much to allay the concerns of businesspeople like Kurt Bulger, co-owner of Jennifer’s of Nova Scotia.

“I had a better feeling of confidence when it was Dr. Strang and Premier Stephen McNeil,” he says in an interview. “Iain seems to be opening a little bit quickly. He’s younger so maybe a bit less cautious that way.”

Bulger says the province can’t run risk another wave and lockdown, which would devastate retailers and restaurants. “They’ve got to take a very careful, phased in, cautious approach to it as far as I’m concerned because we can’t get this wrong,” he says. “If we get this wrong, it’s bye bye for a lot of businesses.”

His gift shop on Spring Garden Road in downtown Halifax is doing one-sixth of its pre-pandemic business and is down from 13 workers to four (which includes the three owners).

“My business is hurting because of the fear that’s out there in the community, not by anything the government is doing,” he says. “The measured approach is the smartest. I’m glad to see they’re actually taking some goal posts and using them as the basis for reopening.”

He acknowledges the tough balancing act for Rankin’s government, including new fast-spreading, highly contagious variants McNeil didn’t have to grapple with, when it comes to protecting Nova Scotians and restarting the economy.

“They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” says Bulger.

In a poll released by Narrative Research in early March, well before the latest lockdown and the debate over the reopening plan, satisfaction with the performance of the provincial government remained well above pre-pandemic levels at 76% vs. 73% in November 2020 when McNeil was premier.

Rankin scored 34% as the preferred choice for Nova Scotia’s premier, compared to 43% for McNeil in November. Generally, more than half of residents, at 55%, had a favourable opinion of Rankin. Around a quarter (23%) were unsure, while 10% believe it’s too soon to say and 12% had an unfavourable opinion.

Halifax Magazine