‘Saving lives is more important than business’

The government’s pre-emptive response to our latest COVID spike from many local restaurants, bars and small businesses — all of which are suffering financially — was encouraging. And should encourage the rest of us to do our part too.

Not the right time to be encouraging people to gather at the theatre for a show…

On Monday, the night before the government imposed a mandatory two-week closure of all bars and restaurants in Halifax beginning Thursday, the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia — representing “the 30,100-plus people, including chefs, cooks, owners, managers, suppliers, wait-staff, sommeliers, kitchen help, caterers and more that make your food experience more memorable” — held an emergency meeting of its board of directors.

In light of rising COVID case counts, many of them traceable to bars and restaurants, the association unanimously agreed to call on its Halifax members to voluntarily stop dine-in services for at least the next two weeks.

Even before the association made that call, some bar owners, like Brendan Doherty of the Old Triangle, had voluntarily shuttered their doors, Doherty closed his popular downtown pub for two weeks because, as he told the CBC, “it’s the right move.”

The Triangle was far from the only establishment to shut down pre-emptively. “Keeping the community safe is our priority,” Matt Boyle, the co-owner of Dartmouth’s Dear Friend Bar, explained on Instagram last Monday as he too turned off his taps until further notice. His bar only opened this summer.

Bars and restaurants weren’t the only places being proactive.

On Saturday, four days before the government announced new limits on public gatherings, an employee of the Halifax Mooseheads — someone not in contact with the Quebec Major Junior hockey team’s players or staff, and who hadn’t been at the team’s game the night before — tested positive for COVID. While public health officials didn’t recommend anything more stringent in the short term than self-monitoring, the team on its own immediately cancelled its scheduled game for that night and another for the upcoming Wednesday. “We’re just being extremely cautious right now,” Mooseheads general manager Cam Russell told the Chronicle Herald’s Willy Palov. “We just don’t want to fool around with this.”

Neither did Neptune Theatre. Artistic Director Jeremy Webb had optimistically scheduled the opening night of the theatre’s formerly normal annual seasonal run of Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol, for last Tuesday. The physically distanced production was intended to be a triumphant re-opening fundraiser for the COVID-battered theatre and had generated what Webb described as an “uplifting… outpouring of excitement and enthusiasm” from stage-starved local theatre patrons. But even before the province lowered the curtain, Webb unilaterally cancelled the show. “We didn’t think it was the right time to be encouraging people to gather at the theatre for a show,” he said.

One can argue the inexorably increasing numbers of positive COVID diagnoses in the city in recent weeks made mandatory government restrictions inevitable and, therefore, those businesses were just looking to earn brownie points for doing on their own what they would soon have no choice but to do… But I think there’s more to it than that.

And that starts at the top.

I am — it is fair to say — no fan of most of Stephen McNeil’s policies or his general approach to governing. But it’s hard to argue with the ways in which he has managed and shaped our public response to the pandemic. (Forget for the moment Northwood and the years of bad government decisions that led up to the tragedies there this spring, and forget too his government’s cover-your-ass review of what led to so many deaths at that long-term care facility… But I digress…)

Stephen McNeil did what you hope all elected officials would do in such circumstances, but, too often, fail to do. (See Jason Kenney, Alberta, various incarnations of Doug Ford, Ontario, and let’s not mention — ever again — Donald Trump, USA.)

McNeil followed — and amplified — the science.

He deferred to Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer of health. Like the late former Nova Scotia premier, John Savage — alao a smartest-guy-in-any-room doctor/leader — Strang can occasionally be prickly, but he is also honest and forthright. When his advice changed — as the science and our understanding of what we needed to do next evolved — Strang was always clear about the whys and the what-nexts, as well as the what-ifs if we didn’t do what was necessary.

McNeil and Strang — along with the rest of us, of course — benefited from our population numbers and our peninsular geography, which allowed us to keep COVID mostly at bay in ways that other jurisdictions couldn’t. But their decisions — the self-isolation requirements, the Atlantic bubble — allowed us to experience a summer and early fall of living, if not normally, at least our new (nearly COVID-free) normal.

That said, McNeil and Strang warned from the beginning we would inevitably smack up against the second wave this fall, and we would need to deal with it.

Which is where we are now.

Having seen, even briefly and incompletely, a dim light at the end of this long dark tunnel, my sense is that we collectively are ready to accept a little more short-term pain now.

Make no mistake. There will be pain. For restaurants and bars and small businesses, and their employees in particular. Which is why it’s important for those of us who are lucky enough not to be suffering the financial pain of the closures directly to find ways — take-out, local online ordering, etc. — to help our neighbours get through this too.

Gordon Stewart, the executive director of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia, acknowledges his members are rightly concerned about the damage the closures will do, but they are also hopeful temporary closures now are better than what could happen — is already happening elsewhere — if we don’t get infections under control now.

“The crippling of the food and beverage sector in many parts of Canada is really sad to see,” Stewart said, “and we want to avoid that. We know that it will depend upon us and other people closing to stop it for the second wave.”

As Khalil Farah, the owner of the Orso Pub and Grill in downtown Halifax put it, “Saving lives is more important than business.”

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A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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