May 5, 2020

Re-opening the economy will be a long, complex process; how do we make it work? Health and Safety Considerations

On April 30th, Premier Jason Kenney presented the Alberta government’s phased plan to gradually re-open the economy beginning as early as May 14th. With that announcement, Alberta joins several other provinces, including Ontario, Manitoba, Quebec and Saskatchewan, that have unveiled similar plans. Our reading of these plans suggests that Alberta has struck a reasonable balance between slowly resuming more normal economic activity, while acknowledging the need to establish safeguards, protect vulnerable Albertans and preserve capacity in the health care system.

That said, the government’s plan is just the beginning of what will be a long process; re-opening the economy will be more challenging and complicated than shutting it down. There will be no “business as usual” until either a vaccine is found or COVID-19 ceases to be a significant health threat.

We are as eager as anyone to see economic activity resume. Too many Albertans are without jobs or have seen a substantial drop in income. The longer the shutdown lasts, the more businesses will fail. And the drop in tax revenue and surge in government support programs mean that Albertans, and all Canadians, will be paying for this shutdown for years to come.

However, if we’re not careful about how we re-open, we risk a resurgence in cases which create more health risks and trigger a new shutdown, prolonging the economic damage. We need to get this right.

This commentary is the first in a series looking at the issues and challenges associated with Alberta’s economic re-launch. It focuses on core conditions related to health, safety and associated rules and regulations: issues that need to be resolved before we even proceed to Phase 1 of re-opening. Subsequent commentaries will focus on economic and social issues such as access to childcare, continued assistance for the vulnerable/infected, and business challenges related to limited customer demand, transitional supports and long-term debt-servicing.

What do we need to make re-opening work?

The success of Alberta’s re-opening plan hinges on three things:

  • Clear rules and guidelines for how businesses must operate;
  • Public confidence that it is safe to go out and resume some normal activities like shopping, getting a haircut or eating at restaurants; and
  • Albertans continuing to act responsibly – maintaining physical distancing protocols and complying with new rules and PPE requirements.

That process starts with the government setting clear rules and expectations for Albertans and businesses to follow, and ensuring they have the tools needed to comply. Here are some of the specific issues and questions that need to be resolved at the outset to ensure that Alberta’s economic re-opening is a successful one:

1. Access to testing with clear guidelines on appropriate tests and use

One of the foundational components of the provincial government’s relaunch strategy is expanded testing. This is important not only to monitoring the outbreak and establishing safe work sites but more critically, to ensuring that Albertans feel safe to leave their homes to work, shop and interact with their friends and family.

We see two requirements regarding testing:

First, Alberta needs to determine a benchmark for testing rates and frequency and then build the necessary capacity to administer and handle tests and interpret results. Alberta leads all provinces in testing rates, but research suggests that we still fall well short of what’s needed. A Nobel Laureate economist, Paul Romer, estimates that each person should be tested every 2 weeks to return to more normal economic activity which means about 7% of the population or 300,000 Albertans each day. The current testing capacity is estimated to be just 7,000 per day or 0.16% of the population.

Second, testing could be greatly expanded if businesses were able to conduct their own testing using reliable tests that provide immediate results. For that to work, the government would need to identify which tests should be used, ensure adequate supply, and establish necessary oversight protocols.

2. Effective and rapid contact tracing

The provincial government’s ability to contain the virus will directly impact consumer confidence and the strength of recovery. This will all come down to Alberta’s ability to cut the time that potentially infected individuals spend interacting.

To assist in minimizing this risk, the provincial government recently released a voluntary contact tracing mobile app called ABTraceTogether. Because it is voluntary and collects limited information, the app tries to strike a balance between effective case tracking and protecting individual privacy. Since launch, an estimated 86,000 Albertans have downloaded the app; however, experts suggest close to half of the population needs to use a contact tracing app for it to be effective. Getting there may require government-mandated downloads, which will require a difficult conversation across the province about the short-term trade-off between safety and privacy.

More important still is the team of contact tracers that will be needed to support digital tracing. A very large team will be needed to identify and notify contacts within a narrow timeframe. The U.S.’s National Association of State and Territorial Health Organizations recommends at least 100 contact tracers for every 100,000 individuals in the population, with some experts recommending as many as 300. On the low end, that would mean about 4,000 contact tracers for Alberta. As of April 5th, the province was using just 70 contact tracers with 300 in training. The good news is Albertans could be easily plugged into this effort, with other jurisdictions like California showing individuals without work or backgrounds in health care can be trained online within a week.


3. Detailed safety protocols and clear expectations

Beyond the phases of the re-launch strategy, businesses need detailed information as soon as possible on the rules they will need to follow when they re-open to protect workers and customers. Specifically, businesses need clarity about government requirements regarding: managing customer traffic; worksite procedures around physical distancing; health and PPE protocols for employees and customers/users/patrons; best practices for identifying and responding to sick customers; signage and communication to customers; markers and rules for physical distancing; and appropriate recourse for customers who do not follow guidelines, to name just a few.

4. Clarity of types and use of PPE

Specific rules for use of PPE, such as masks and gloves, need to be clarified so businesses can stockpile the right products to keep workers and customers safe. Guidelines are needed, not just for when and how to use PPE, but also on product standards. For instance, masks come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and materials. Some are better than others. What kind of mask is sufficient for which activities? How often should masks be cleaned and with what sanitization products?

5. Adequate supply of appropriate PPE

Clarity on allowable types of PPE and their use will make little difference if those products are not readily available. This means ensuring that any required protection such as masks, plastic barriers between customers and workers, thermal imaging cameras for temperature checks, and other technologies and supplies that are needed are widely available for purchase and use.

6. Regulatory support as businesses navigate the new normal

To bolster the confidence of workers and customers, businesses will be subject to new compliance regulations. However, since this experience is new to everyone, there are bound to be growing pains as businesses and individuals learn to adjust. For this reason, we encourage the province and its inspectors to act as an essential support to help businesses and Albertans navigate these new rules, rather than just enforce them. Given the number of businesses across the province, this will not be a small task and will require a well-trained team of people.

Additionally, the government could engage the help of the public in identifying risky areas, businesses, and activities. This could be done by allowing individuals to communicate concerns which the government can then work with businesses to address and temporarily shut down as necessary, to maximize recovery efforts and minimize the spread of the virus.

While businesses are anxious to open and consumers are restless for haircuts, these issues must be addressed before we can safely move beyond stage 0. In our next commentary, we will shift gears to look at some of the social and economic challenges we expect as we transition into phases 1 and 2, and highlight where Alberta needs to focus its efforts next to protect individuals and businesses in this new normal.

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