Premier Scott Moe gave an update on the Reopen Saskatchewan Plan Friday and defended the document and his government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moe said the time is right to begin re-opening the province, especially as updated employment data from Statistics Canada shows thousands of job losses across the country.
Still, he said, Saskatchewan’s situation is a success story, as the province’s unemployment rate is the second-lowest amongst Canadian provinces and territories.
“There have been huge job losses everywhere,” Moe told reporters during Friday’s media briefing.
“While the new unemployment numbers are very troubling … there is also reason for a little bit of optimism. “
Moe said Saskatchewan’s number of people working has dropped by 12.7 per cent since February — less than any other province in Canada. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate at 11.3 per cent is the nation’s second-lowest. The province has lost 71,000 jobs due to the pandemic, he said.
‘We need to find a way for those people to go back to work,” he said.
“At the same time, we should recognize that about half a million Saskatchewan people have remained employed throughout this pandemic. That’s good news for us all.”
According to Friday’s employment update, over 3 million Canadians have lost their job since the beginning of the COVID-19 economic shutdown.
The 15.7 per cent decline in employment “far exceeds declines observed in previous labour market downturns,” Statistics Canada wrote Friday. The 1981-82 recession, for example, saw a 5.4 per cent reduction in employment spread over 17 months.
Quebec was hit the hardest with employment falling 18.7 per cent. They also lead the nation in unemployment rate with a staggering 17 per cent.
Saskatchewan’s 11.3 per cent unemployment rate matches that of Ontario. The only province to perform better in April is PEI, which has an unemployment rate of 10.8 per cent.
The national unemployment rate sits at 13 per cent.
“Saskatchewan is weathering the storm better than many provinces,” Moe said.
He said the question isn’t black and white. It isn’t a matter of protection on one hand or economy on the other.
“People can go to work … and we can do so safely while at the same time controlling the spread of COVID-19,” Moe said.
“We know we are all doing things differently. Do you want to reopen the economy or do you want to control the spread of COVID-19? The fact is I want to do both — we all want to do both. Everyone in this province wants to do both. I firmly believe we are able to achieve both of these goals.”
Phase one of the province’s reopen plan came into effect Monday. Phase two is set to launch after another week. Friday, the province added two sectors to its reopen plan, based on industry feedback.
Drive-in theatres will be allowed to open on May 15. Farmers Markets can start on May 19.
They will have to follow protocols and social distancing guidelines to keep people safe.
“There are still a number of businesses that will not be able to reopen,” Moe said, “So today we are announcing additional supports for those businesses.”
The province revealed that businesses who had already qualified for an initial payment through the province’s emergency support program for small businesses will automatically receive a second payment after May 19. The program allows applicants to receive a payment of 15 per cent of their sales revenue from April 2019 or February 2020, up to $5,000, to help businesses that have been forced to close with fixed costs such as rent. So far, more than 4,700 applications have been processed and more than $15 million in payments doled out. The program will be extended for the month of May for those who are required to remain closed after May 19.
“We want to support those businesses so everybody has a job to come back to when we reopen,” Moe said.
“I want to encourage each one of you to continue your physical distancing practices so we can protect not only yourself ut your family and friends.”
Moe said more changes to the Reopen Saskatchewan Plan could come as industries come up with unique solutions to offer their services.
“No one has had to reopen an economy before,” Moe said.
“We are working our way through this driven by public safety and proper public health in our communities. The changes are from … the business community contacting us through our business response telephone line and providing, in man cases, suggestions as to how they can operate better and in a safer way.”
Those suggestions, Moe said, are then put to the medical health officers, who determine whether they represent a way forward that allows access to services while protecting public health and safety.
“If (Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab) and his team don’t believe they can be done in a safe manner, we have to delay those until a later point in time,” Moe said.
“We are listening to all of those involved, but at the end of the day the plan is guided by public health and public safety, making sure we’re reducing the risk of spread of COVID-19 and keeping as many people in this province as safe as possible.”
Shahab reiterated earlier points — that in some cases it may be okay to have closer contact with one or two people of your extended household, so long as no one is sick and no one has underlying conditions. He also stressed that reopening d=businesses does not mean a return o the way things were before the pandemic.
“COVID-19 can come back with a vengeance and within days it can go from one case to several dozen,” Shahab said.
“We still have to maintain that discipline around physical distancing overall. That will still apply as other sectors reopen. Just as grocery shopping is not the same as before.
“This is not the time to try ten shirts on to buy one. The best way is if you want to get a shirt, you know your size, select your colour, pick that shirt up and come back. We really need to change how we engage in retail.”
Moe said it’s time for a shift in thinking as to how the province is going to bounce back.
“We have the challenge of doing that 71,000 times over to get everyone who has lost their job the opportunity to get their job back,” he said.
“As the world looks to recover, we should view this as an opportunity. We create our wealth through providing goods to the rest of the world and we have in this province what the world needs to have in a strong economic recovery. Among the potash, and among the uranium, and among the agricultural goods going in the ground right now as we start the great mega project of seeding — we have one of the most important resources in the resiliency of the people in our communities across this great province. I’m confident that not only will we be able to get our 71,000 people back to work … we are going to be able to far better than that.”