THUNDER BAY – Local business and political leaders had the chance to hear from Ontario’s finance minister at a luncheon on Wednesday.
Peter Bethlenfalvy, who replaced Rod Phillips as Minister of Finance last year, spoke at the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce event at the Valhalla Inn during a short visit in Thunder Bay, one of several Northern Ontario stops.
Chamber president Charla Robinson said the organization’s first in-person indoor event for 21 months was an encouraging sign of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mayor Bill Mauro and several city councillors were in attendance, along with Chief Peter Collins of Fort William First Nation and representatives from local businesses and economic agencies.
Bethlenfalvy took the opportunity to tout the Northern Ontario Recovery Program, Ontario Small Business Support Grant, and other programs he said have provided millions in aid to Thunder Bay businesses.
Those supports have been particularly needed in the region – employment in Northern Ontario has declined by 7.2 per cent since February of 2020, the largest dip in the province, he said.
Bethlenfalvy said Wednesday the response to the pandemic also needs to be forward-looking, with COVID-19 accelerating the shift to digital connectivity, for example.
He pointed to a new investment of $2.8 billion in the 2021 budget, with a goal to ensure reliable broadband access province-wide by 2025.
In a brief question period following his comments, chamber of commerce president Charla Robinson asked how the government will ensure businesses don’t pay the price for the decision by some not to get vaccinated.
“We’re concerned that if the Delta variant continues to spread to unvaccinated individuals, that businesses will be again called upon to take that burden,” she said.
“We have to be very vigilant, because the Delta variant is very scary,” Bethlenfalvy agreed, noting other countries like Australia, the U.S., and Israel have recently had to re-impose restrictions.
However, he did not address the possibility of requiring proof of vaccination for certain activities, like entering stores.
Premier Doug Ford has firmly rejected the possibility of provincial restrictions based on proof of vaccination, saying such policies would create a “split society.”
Robinson said such measures, which have been called for by mayors and other business groups, should be on the table.
“Our message continues to be, we want businesses to be able to stay open,” she said. “Whether that means reduced capacity limits [or] things like limiting access for folks who aren’t vaccinated when needed, if cases rise, that would be our preference… Those are the types of policies we’d prefer, rather than closing businesses again.”
The ability to remain open is now more important to businesses than financial supports from government, she said
The impact of the pandemic on local businesses is still unfolding, she said.
“We know a number of businesses are still experiencing challenges to bring back staff to open, or there may be other reasons – things like inventory, supply chain challenges.”