INNISFAIL – After opening their downtown business Collective House a year and a half ago Meggie Clarke and her partner Charlotte Stamp are opening a second store on Canada Day in Drumheller.
July 1 is the same day Alberta becomes one of the first provinces or territory in Canada to remove most COVID-19 restrictions, including all capacity and physical distancing guidelines, enhanced cleaning protocols, service closures and the limits on outdoor and indoor gatherings. The province’s Stage 3 of its pandemic recovery plan also calls for the lifting of mandatory masking.
Clarke said she and her partner are excited about the challenge of moving forward with a second store in Drumheller, despite having to navigate a 15-month rollercoaster ride in Innisfail of changing restrictions, including capacity and mandatory masking.
“It will definitely be another adjustment but we’ve all learned just to pivot this last year and a half. We are all tired of wearing masks,” she said. "It will just be nice to see people again and to have full capacity in businesses and everybody staying open.”
She added that despite their good fortune of making it through the pandemic and being able to expand, there could still be some anxiety in the weeks ahead.
“I still think I will feel some stress for a while but I am looking forward to a little bit more consistency with being able to run our business the way we want to,” she said. “They say restrictions are going to be lifted but I am still going to tread lightly for a little while.”
Private fitness clubs have been especially hit hard by the pandemic, enduring repeated closures and losing frustrated customers.
Brayanna Lukawiecki, a personal trainer at Snap Fitness in the Henday Mall, said the full July 1 opening will not only bring more customers, including those for groups. Staff and customers will finally have their freedom returned to choose whether to wear a mask.
“Everybody has a choice but I think most of the staff are going to be mask-free and everybody will have a choice to work out without a mask,” said Lukawiecki. “A lot of people froze their membership just because they didn’t want to wear the mask.”
She said the previously lost membership, about 25 per cent out of more than 80 customers, is now returning because of the July 1 full reopening.
“It’s going way uphill. We did lose just as many members as we have gained now,” said Lukawiecki. “It has been a challenge, but we are looking forward to hopefully getting things back to normal.”
Tyrel Robinson, the president of the Innisfail & District Chamber of Commerce and a small business owner, said the growing optimism for July 1 is fuelled by high vaccinations rates and the dramatic downturn in positive COVID infections.
“It’s good we can reopen to get back to normal as much as we can and try to recover some of the ground a lot of small businesses have lost with being shut down for so long and being yoyoed up and down,” said Robinson. “There is definitely some hesitation on what happens if there’s another wave.
"I think at that point it’s going to be very tricky for the government to try to do a lockdown again after reopening everything completely. Unless something different happens down the road, I think we’re going in the right direction at this point."
It's hoped everyone will still be careful and considerate to others in their daily affairs, he said.
“I think general flu and infection control has become kind of a norm, which is a good thing, and will probably stay. I think for businesses we are not necessarily going back to normal, we are going back to a new normal of reducing chances of infection, whether it’s COVID-19 or the general flu," he said.
It's important the town and Chamber work together to help entrepreneurs get what they need to navigate through the new normal and move forward with creative marketing, advertising and promotion to motivate more people to frequent local businesses, he said.
“There are definitely things the town is advocating with the different levels of government on what financial aids and what different businesses need.
"As businesses we have different concerns and issues we can bring up to the Chamber. We are one of their avenues of advocacy towards the town and provincial government.”
Mark Kemball is owner of the Innisfail Dairy Queen, and has long been a respected spokesperson and advocate for the local small business community. He said all the town can do at this critical point of COVID recovery is support small business, and encourage the public to do the same.
“And make it easy for them to get going and starting up again, whether that might have to be deferring some payments to the town, and whether that’s a water or tax bill, it would certainly be beneficial to those small businesses trying to get back on their feet,” said Kemball. “If there was some flexibility that would be key.”
As for his own future, Kemball said he’s both excited and nervous about returning to full houses again at his Dairy Queen.
“At the same time, I am nervous because it seems like we have gone from a bunch of restrictions in place, to them disappearing,” he said. However, he added there is optimism for everyone to seize with the high vaccination rates, particularly for the seniors population.
“I guess I am comfortable because I think the vaccines are our way out of this. At the same time, it has been 16 months since we’ve had restrictions,” he said. “It just seems almost weird to just take everything off.
“We’ve all become hermits. I am a very social person and I need my people, and so it has been extremely hard. I know I am ready to put this behind us and I think most of the community is ready too, cautiously. I am cautiously optimistic. I really think this is going to be in our rear-view mirror.”