As Canada prepares to gradually reopen, Quebec Province–which has seen the highest number of COVID-19 cases–will be the example to watch as to how to get it right.
Over the next two weeks, 500,000 people will return to jobs in the retail, manufacturing and construction sectors in Quebec as the province gradually loosens lockdown measures implemented amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stores with exterior entrances will open outside Montreal on May 4 and in the city a week later, with construction and manufacturing resuming a week after that.
Bombardier, Canada’s flagship multinational jet and rail manufacturer, provides a great example of how this will be done carefully. Employees at assembly plants will be asked to stand six feet apart, wash their hands frequently, and get their temperatures checked daily, as well as be subject to modified shifts and personal protective equipment.
For Bombardier employees, it’s good news. More than twelve thousand company personnel were among the 1.2 million Quebecers furloughed over the past two months. Yet in the coming days Bombardier will send 11,000 employees back to work, 9,000 of them in Quebec.
Quebec isn’t the only Canadian province looking to reopen for business—Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick also plan to do so in the coming weeks—but Quebec’s plan is seen as especially aggressive given it has the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Canada.
For some, it’s a risk worth taking. Advocates of the reopening argue that the coronavirus has proven most deadly to seniors who aren’t part of the country’s workforce. This is in contrast to the 1918 Spanish Flu which predominantly killed young people and children. Yet that pandemic also impacted an economy that was organized very differently to today’s service sector-dominated one.
According to National Bank of Canada chief economist Stéfane Marion in an interview with The Financial Post, industries heaviest hit by COVID-19 and the resulting shutdown—transportation, arts and entertainment, retail, food and accommodation—consist of 22% of the Canaian workforce but only 7% of GDP. The longer the shutdown, the less likely these people will have jobs to return to, he said.
One challenge will be convincing consumers to come out again with retailers expecting 30-50% less business than usual based on the experience of other countries emerging from lockdown.
The construction industry is another that will take safety protocols seriously. The $52 billion industry employs about 265,000 people in the province, 190,000 directly on job sites.
Jean-Phillippe Cliche, senior economist with the Association de Construction du Quebec, has said he believes the province risks an “infrastructure deficit” if it misses a construction season, particularly in Montreal where numerous road and tunnelling projects are currently awaiting crews.
With so much at stake economically, and the threat of secondary outbreaks of COVID-19, the hope for everyone involved is that Quebec can find the right balance between health and safety concerns and resuming business.