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Skeena candidates talk COVID-19, economic recovery

Support all around for public health officer’s handling of pandemic so far
Incumbent BC Liberal candidate Ellis Ross and BC NDP candidate Nicole Halbauer. (Black Press photo and BC NDP photo)

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people in B.C. more than anything else this year, resulting in more than 200 deaths, double-digit unemployment, and a ballooning provincial deficit.

In a Sept. 23 address to the nation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canadians that the country was in a second wave of the pandemic and that it “won’t be gathering for Thanksgiving.” He said it would take hard work to even be able to gather together for Christmas.

B.C. has seen new infections reach over 100 per day several times in September, dwarfing those at the previous height of the pandemic in March and April. New cases are expected to climb further as a result of sending children back to school and people spending more time indoors to escape colder weather.

Job losses and an economic shutdown prompted the provincial government to spend big to soften the blow to citizens and businesses. Former Finance Minister Carole James released the province’s first-quarter financial report Sept. 10, projecting a $12.8 billion deficit for the fiscal year that ends in March 2021.

Since July, the province has experienced better than expected employment gains, consumer spending and housing activity, but rising cases — many of them in younger people — and the possibility of new restrictions threaten to derail economic recovery.

The outcome of this month’s B.C. election will shape the future provincial response to the crisis.

Both BC NDP candidate Nicole Halbauer and Liberal candidate Ellis Ross feel the current B.C. COVID-19 recovery plan has been beneficial thus far throughout the pandemic.

Halbauer said she doesn’t see a reason to deviate from B.C.’s current COVID-19 safety recommendations, such as wearing masks, hand washing and social distancing.

“Fewer faces, bigger places. Really that’s what we need to do, and to make sure that we’re taking care of each other and we’re not attacking each other over these measures,” she said.

Ross said he feels that, for the most part, the provincial NDP government did a good job with the COVID-19 recovery plan. He added that he especially felt comfortable with it because the BC Liberal leader, Andrew Wilkinson, who has an M.D., was the one who told his party they should cooperate with the plan.

“He’s the one that actually recommended that to us, and that’s why we didn’t oppose the pandemic plan. We didn’t oppose, and we actually supported unanimously the 1.5-billion-dollar recovery plan.”

Ross said he feels comfortable dealing with pandemic-related issues going forward because of the amount of medical knowledge present within the BC Liberal’s party, but one thing he’d like to see changed is clearer direction for businesses about how to properly maintain COVID-19 protocols in their stores.

“I was going around, walking around, talking to people, and one of the biggest complaints I got was the vagueness about the rules. And I could see it in the stores,” Ross said, adding that some stores were very strict on their COVID-19 changes, while others weren’t, which he said was causing confusion among shoppers and business owners.

“The business community, especially, and the people got frustrated with not knowing what the rules were, [and they] were actually the ones telling me that we needed clearer rules.”

Ross said, if it was necessary, he wouldn’t be opposed to going back to earlier pandemic restrictions, but that it would depend on administrative regulations, as well as what professionals are regulating and saying.

“I still believe it today, that when you’re talking about the pandemic, you should leave the politics out of it,” he said. “You should go to the recommendations of people that specialize in stopping pandemics and epidemics and, you know, any type of contagion.”

Halbauer said she thinks Dr. Bonnie Henry, Adrian Dix and the NDP government did a good job in the early weeks of the pandemic of preparing B.C. for a second wave of COVID-19.

“The point of those measures in the beginning were to allow our healthcare system the ability to adapt and grow and transform into a way that it could meet the needs of a second wave,” she said. “Adrian Dix and Bonnie Henry have really mobilized our healthcare system in a way that’s going to make it very efficient and sustainable for the long term.”

Halbauer, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with an image of Dr. Henry, said she considers Dr. Henry to be a personal hero.

“She is hit with this pandemic, and she shows up in our media, and she’s so calm, while everybody else is feeling the crisis,” Halbauer said. “I have so much respect for that. The lack of panic, and the empathy. Her empathy, some days I just look at her and I think ‘Wow, there’s a public figure that is genuine and warm, and reminds us to be kind.’”

Ross said the two sectors that got hit the worst economically during the pandemic were restaurants and the tourism sector, and that dealing with those will be a priority to help with job losses and rebuilding the economy post-COVID-19.

“We’ll look at those issues directly related to [restaurant and tourism] downturn and actually try incentivize and help build that back up closer to levels previous to the pandemic,” he said.

Halbauer said she feels that childcare is one of the main areas to prioritize, as it’s something that’s been discussed and debated for many years now.

In order for locals to get back to work, the Skeena riding needs better childcare, she said, which means implementing $10 a day childcare and more childcare spots. She recalled her experiences raising six children in the area.

“When I was a single mom with kids in childcare, I was paying so much money for childcare that some days I couldn’t understand why I was going to work. Some months I was like, ‘I’m going to work to pay for somebody else to raise my children,’” Halbauer said. “We’re such a rich society. Why are we charging people to go to work? We know childcare is essential, so why are we not making it affordable and accessible?”

Going forward, Halbauer said that supporting small businesses and government spending on social supports that can help people re-enter the workforce are key methods to begin economic recovery.

“Getting people back to work is key, in small businesses, in our cafes, in our small shops,” she said. “But in order to do that we need to make sure that the social infrastructure is there … to make sure that when [people] go out to earn their income and contribute to our economy, that they’re not putting themselves or their families at risk.”

One way to steward success of local businesses, Halbauer said, is to ensure that supply chains for crucial items, like personal protective equipment (PPE), remain intact. She was a northern representative on B.C.’s Small Business Roundtable when the pandemic first struck, and one of her main priorities there was to bring PPE to businesses in the Northwest. She would do the same as MLA, she said.

“You have to make sure that you’re passing policies and ensuring that within your province you have [PPE],” she said. “It’s actually quite an onerous task, but you have to be part of the whole supply chain, and you have to understand how your supply chain works, to make sure that you’re not getting product that doesn’t meet your own standards within your own jurisdiction.”

Ross said that the BC Liberals are the “party of free enterprise” with their role in and support of local industry, such as the aluminum smelter and the LNG Canada facility. He believes that encouraging investment and supporting the private sector are key for Skeena to prosper economically post-COVID-19.

“So, being free enterprise, we know what it takes to restart an economy and that means encouraging investment. That means supporting the private sector,” he said. “And so when we’re talking about deficits, I don’t believe that governments should actually just go to the lowest common denominator to address deficits. You shouldn’t just go back to taxpayers. That is not sustainable, especially at the same time if you’re suppressing the private sector.”

Ross added that the BC Liberals also recently announced their plan to cut the provincial sales tax (PST) across the province for a year if elected, to help lower costs and support consumers and business owners.

“Cutting PST for a year, the good and services tax, you know, it not only helps the consumers, in terms of the goods and services that they’re buying,” Ross said, “but it encourages them to go out and spend locally. That also helps the retailers, it helps the restaurant people.”

In terms of industries that continue to bring workers from outside the region, both Ross and Halbauer said they feel companies are doing a good job of putting protocols in place for those out-of-town workers.

Both candidates also feel the workers are doing a good job of respecting those regulations, as well as the Skeena community and its members.

“I think the out-of-town workers understand the risk and that the rules are there for a reason,” Ross said. “You know, when I’m walking around Kitimat and I’m walking around Terrace, nobody really mentions [the out-of-town workers] because when you walk into these open areas, everybody is practicing the conditions laid down by Doctor Bonnie Henry.”

When asked if these industries should further restrict their employees from interacting with communities in the Skeena riding, Halbauer said she believes most people are following Dr. Henry’s guidelines, which are sufficient to keep people safe.

She added that personal compassion is essential to stopping the virus.

“If we’re concerned about each other, then we can make sure that we take care of each other,” she said. “If I care for you, and you care for him, then we can stop it.”

Please note this article was written before independent candidate Martin Holzbauer entered the race. Holzbauer will be included in all future coverage.