It was a day in Saskatchewan that everyone knew was inevitable, but hoped would never come.
Premier Scott Moe called the past year “difficult.”
“A year ago, we didn’t know a whole lot about this virus,” Moe said during a briefing on March 9.
“The only thing we really knew for sure was that things were going to get worse in the weeks ahead.”
Global News contacted the premier’s office several times requesting an interview for this story, but we were referred to his March 9 press conference.
Meanwhile, in an interview with Global News at the end of February, Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili said he was disappointed with the Saskatchewan Party government’s initial response to the growing crisis.
“They wanted to have a snap spring election, that was their big plan,” Meili said.
“When we raised our concerns about this, they brushed it off. Clearly, it wasn’t something to brush off.”
Marilyn Braun-Pollon, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business’s vice-president for Western Canada and agri-business, called last March “unreal.”
“We weren’t expecting it (COVID) to arrive in Saskatchewan and when it did, we weren’t sure what to do or how long it would last,” she said.
“Really, there was no playbook, either for governments or small businesses.”
The first wave
One week after the first case was confirmed, Moe declared a state of emergency.
It gave the provincial government broad powers to bring in public health measures and required everyone to comply with any orders issued by the Ministry of Health or the chief medical health officer.
The state of emergency has now been in place for close to a year, which is concerning for Carla Zwibel.
The director and lawyer with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said emergencies typically do not last for more than a year.
“What we’ve done over the course of the year in basically every place across the country is really given our executive branches of government a lot of power and moved away from a system where the legislative branch gets to oversee and question,” she said.
“That is a subversion of the way we usually do things.”
Once the state of emergency was declared, the Saskatchewan government invoked a number of measures, ordering all non-essential businesses closed and placing limits on the size of gatherings.
Meili said the Saskatchewan government didn’t act fast enough.
“Fortunately, the public pressure and the pressure from other governments around the country who (were) acting forced this government to act despite their initial instincts,” he said.
“It was a lot of work to move this government to do what they also seem to want to do — as little as possible.”
Zwibel, however, has been calling on governments to justify the measures that were put in place.
“I certainly think that these restrictions infringed on people’s liberties,” she said.
“Looking back, there certainly were things that were probably unreasonable, but I do think that governments at the time were grappling with limited knowledge about exactly what the virus was all about and how it was transmitted.”
Moe was asked on March 9 about the criticism levelled at him and his government over their handling of the pandemic.
“It’s not for me to judge,” Moe said.
“My response, or even the government of Saskatchewan’s response is… to listen to the advice that we receive from folks like Dr. (Saqib) Shahab as well as others within our health system, as well as the general population in our communities across the province.
“We do trust and have faith in the people of this province to do the right thing to ensure they are preserving the health of not only themselves, but their family, their community and those around them.”
Small businesses were put in a crunch when the first wave hit and non-essential businesses were ordered closed.
Braun-Pollon said owners were making tough decisions about layoffs while watching consumers turn to big box stores and online shopping.
She said not enough was done at first to support businesses and that federal government policies only changed through pressure by advocacy groups like the CFIB.
“That’s where we saw the wage subsidy first come out of 10 per cent, much too low. We got the government to increase that to 75 per cent,” she said.
“We saw the emergency business account introduced as well. We also saw the rent program, which is a complete mess in the beginning. We got them to change that down the road.”
However, she did say the Saskatchewan government reached out to the business community as policies were developed.
“They were introducing programs that were going to get relief into pockets right away. The other thing that we also noticed is that on the business emergency payment, new businesses were ineligible initially. We were able to have that change with the program as well.”
The premier said the province was at the forefront when it came to supporting people and businesses.
Moe said along with ensuring Saskatchewan had access to federal funds, the province also invested provincial money into programs.
“Not only small business, but invested in our communities, infrastructure in our communities through a $2.2 billion addition to our already $5.5 billion infrastructure plan,” he said.
Meili, however, said more was needed to support small businesses.
“These are major employers in the province. These are folks who spend their profits locally. This is a sector that really needs our support and this government’s been really reluctant when it comes to meaningful small business supports.”
The second wave
As cases started to rise in November, Meili called on Moe to act.
“We saw the climbing case numbers and we said it’s time for a short-term circuit breaker. Let’s really get the virus under control so that we don’t see ourselves in months of lockdown,” Meili said.
“The government chose to do the opposite.”
Moe said he rejected the call for a circuit breaker as tens of thousands of jobs would be lost.
“There are consequences to a lockdown or a circuit breaker,” Moe said on Nov. 18, 2020.
“We lost 70,000 jobs in this province when we locked down the first time. Thankfully, through a robust recovery, we’ve been able to re-capture 55,000 of those jobs here in the province, leaving us about 15,000 jobs short where we were before COVID.”
The following day, a province-wide mask mandate came into effect. Just under a month later, the province banned household gatherings and reduced capacity at retails stores.
“We’re now months and months into public health measures that were never quite enough to get things under control,” Meili said.
There were concerns at the CFIB that 42 per cent of businesses would not survive the second wave. Braun-Pollon said she was pleased the province took a more targeted approach with restrictions the second time around.
“Allowing small businesses, small retailers to be open 50 per cent and big-box 25 per cent was a much more fair policy than what we saw in other provinces.”
However, Zwibel questions whether some of the measures brought in last December were justified.
“Some people would say some activities are being given sort of preferential treatment,” she said.
“Certainly, people who are used to worshiping at church or at any sort of religious facility are missing that, and I think are quite reasonably wondering why it is that they’re allowed to go shopping but not allowed to do some of those things.”
Moe announced on March 9 that restrictions on gatherings at households and places of worship were being eased, but hinted other measures could remain in place for a few more weeks.
“The fact remains that the more close contacts each of us has, the more chance we have of contracting and spreading COVID-19,” Moe said.
“As Saskatchewan continues to see our case rates and hospitalizations rates stabilize, and as we increase the pace of our vaccinations … we will be actively loosening restrictions … in the next number of weeks.”
Keeping everyone safe remains the top priority as the province, and Canada, continue to move toward the end of the second wave and the easing of restrictions.
“I think everyone has a role to play to ensure that we can look at reducing those case numbers,” Braun-Pollon said.
“We need universal compliance and that means everyone following the rules.”
Meili said although he wants masks to be a thing of the past, there is a little way further to reach that goal.
“Let’s keep each other safe until the vaccine is available for everyone,” he said. “Let’s get that vaccine in our arms so that we can forget anytime we ever needed to slap a mask on our face just to go in a store.”
Moe urged patience.
“The path out of COVID depends on everyone getting vaccinated when it’s your turn,” he said.
“Keep following all of the public health orders and the guidelines for just a little while longer, and most importantly, I ask you, when it’s your turn, take the shot, get vaccinated.”
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