Blog - Cambridge Chamber of Commerce

The lifting of provincial and regional mask mandates is welcomed news for businesses and customers alike.

 

While restrictions remain in place for public transit, long-term care and retirement homes, shelters and jails, the decision to keep masking, vaccination, or daily screening policies in place has basically been left up to individual employers who must also consider their obligation to protect workers under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

 

When it comes to businesses that wish to keep masking in place, setting out clear expectations in a policy is essential – especially for businesses that are public-facing, says Dr. Nadira Singh, Chair of Business at Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning.

 

“The first thing you have to be clear about is posting your signage. You have got to let people know you are protecting your staff and your customers,” she says, recommending businesses also post any policies on their social media channels as well. “You want to make sure they feel safe being in your business.”

 

Carrie Thomas, founder of Nimbus HR Solutions Group, agrees and recommends changing the wording on signs to ‘freshen’ that messaging and suggests even moving them to another location in the business to draw renewed attention.

 

“Sometimes, we get so used to seeing something that we don’t see it anymore,” she says. “That’s how humans are built.”

 

Consistency, says Carrie, is key and that really knowing your customer base or employees can assist employers anticipate any potential reactions.

 

“You have to make sure you communicate your policy to them,” she says, noting that conveying to them the policy may be reviewed considering how rapidly public health directives can change may allay concerns, especially if someone is confrontational. “That would not be an untrue statement because many businesses may decide to review their policies on a monthly basis, while others may look at it on a weekly basis.”

 

Having a well-thought-out policy in place that employees can clearly deliver and understand will provide them assistance when working with customers.

 

“As individuals enter a business, hopefully they have seen the signage and will comply. But if they don’t, then we need to ask them for compliance,” says Nadira, adding training employees to read verbal and non-verbal cues has become vital during the pandemic when it comes conflict resolution. 

 

She says offering alternatives to customers, such as providing them with masks if they don’t have one with them or offering curbside pickup, may help. 

 

“You want to make sure you are keeping your customers and that at the end of the day, you are also protecting everybody,” says Nadira.

 

Carrie agrees and suggests keeping the politics surrounding COVID-19 out of any policy decisions, noting talking with employees should be the first step.

 

“You need to talk to your staff and figure out where the comfort level is for all of you,” she says, explaining that focusing any policy on the health and safety of your employees and customers sends a more positive message.

 

She says showing employees they are valued will go a long way.

 

“Trying to find employees is tough right now,” says Carrie. “I said at the beginning of the pandemic, how an employer treats their employees through this is going to determine how easy it is to find staff after it ends. The employers who have taken care of their people during COVID-19 are not the ones who are going to have a problem finding staff.”

 

For more about Nimbus HR Solutions Group, visit https://bit.ly/3DgoWve

 

 

Key pieces to a mask policy:

  • Education & training
  • Creating a clear policy
  • Offering alternatives to customers
  • Referencing Occupational Health and Safety Act regulations

 

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The decision by Premier Doug Ford’s government to extend its COVID-19 sick days program has pushed the issue of paid leave back into the spotlight for many employers and their employees.

 

The province announced Dec. 7 that it’s COVID-19 Worker Income Protection Benefit, which require employers to provide up to three paid days off related to the pandemic and was to expire at the end of December, will continue until July 31.

 

But what happens after that date remains unclear, especially as the pandemic continues to drag on.

 

“In terms of what we do going forward, this is a question that deserves debate and discussion because on the one hand, there is a sound rationale to having a program like this in place, but the government can’t be footing the bill for everyone endlessly,” says Daniel Safayeni, Vice-President of Policy for the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. “And on the other side, small businesses have been disproportionately impacted by the crisis and the cost of doing business has gone up.”

 

He says it is worth noting the government budgeted $1 billion for the provincial program and that less than one-tenth – approximately 10% - has been used since it was launched last April. Under the program, employees receive a maximum of $200 per day, with the province reimbursing the employer. To date, employers have submitted more than $80 million in wages for sick pay claims for more than 235,000 workers.

 

“What we’ve seen in the numbers, on average by those who’ve used it, is no more than two sick days,” says Daniel.

 

The idea of transitioning this support to a more permanent sick day program of 10 days is something the Ontario Federation of Labour has been lobbying the provincial government to implement. In fact, a poll conducted by Envrionics Research in the last two weeks of November of 2021 indicated that 80% of the 1,210 respondents supported the Federation’s call for 10 permanent employer-paid sick days. 

 

“It is far past time for Ford’s Conservative government to finally do the right thing and introduce permanent, adequate, employer-paid sick leave and Ontarians overwhelmingly agree,” said Patty Coates, Ontario Federation of Labour President, in a Dec. 9 post on the group’s website. “The Worker Income Protection Benefit is temporary and inadequate. While Ontarians face the rise of a new COVID-19 variant and flu season, we urgently need this common-sense health measure to keep ourselves and our communities safe.”

 

But rising inflation and budgetary constraints faced by many businesses at this time would make implementing such a permanent program difficult, which is why Daniel says careful discussion is imperative.

 

“Ideally, there is a balance that can be struck in some future version of this program (Worker Income Protection Benefit) in which the government can still support these three sick days, particularly for smaller businesses that are in-person and don’t have the remote capabilities or don’t necessarily have the resources to fund an additional benefit like this,” he says, adding many larger businesses may already have sick day policies in place. “Perhaps there is some evolution that can occur for those that don’t, and that expense is eventually transitioned over to the employer. But this stuff needs to be done in consultation with the business community and the timelines need to match the economic backdrop.”

 

Daniel says implementing a more permanent paid sick leave program should not be part of any election promises.

 

“Right now, it’s getting mixed up within the context of an election,” he says. “It also has to be thought of within a broader package of benefits and compensation that employers are providing.”

 

And while the pandemic continues, especially for workplaces like smaller manufacturers, Daniel says the need to extend this program is important.

 

“The other backdrop to this is there is a war on talent and labour shortages and you’re seeing businesses trying to compete in the benefits they offer and to try and be an attractive place to work,” he says, adding providing a safe workplace for employees should remain the top priority right now, especially in the ‘essential’ sectors of retail, administration, and manufacturing. “It’s in no one’s best interest for a business to be in a situation in which they are risking the health and safety of their employees and by extension, the continuity of their business operation.”

 

Daniel says now is the time to investigate where this paid sick day benefit program can lead.

 

“It was wise of the government to extend this program, but let’s use the time we have between now and July to determine what the next step for this will look like,” he says. “As a Chamber network, we need to continue to do more work to understand where our members are at this time and what avenues for us going forward could be used to have a productive solution in place.”

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The Cambridge Chamber of Commerce is easing its way back into hosting traditional events.

 

After more than 20 months since the pandemic began, the Chamber is set to host its first in-person Business After Hours event on Dec. 13 at Four Fathers Brewing Co. in Hespeler.

 

Chamber President and CEO Greg Durocher says is an important step for the organization.

“It’s a priority for the Chamber to start getting back to in-person events,” he says. “But whether they will be ‘normal’ as we all remember them, that probably won’t happen for some time.”

 

In fact, Greg expects future Chamber events will be of the ‘hybrid’ variation to a certain degree, providing Members the chance to attend in-person or remain in a virtual setting.

 

“That’s going to be for the benefit of everybody,” he says. “But we will certainly provide Members with value in regard to our content the best that we can.”

He says having an in-person Business After Hours event is important to many Chamber Members.

 

“It’s important for people doing business in the community to have an opportunity to meet safely with others face-to-face,” says Greg, noting the importance of following strict safety protocols and restrictions set out in the Province’s Reopening Ontario Act.

 

As a result, participants will not only have to register in advance, but proof of vaccination is required as well as identification that matches that material.

Just like restaurants, the provincial QR code will also be utilized at the event.

 

“Most of our events take place in other venues, such as conference centres, restaurants or meeting rooms that are not ours,” says Greg, noting regulations set out in the Act apply to these locations.

 

As well, the Cambridge Chamber Board of Directors recently passed a mandatory vaccination policy for the Chamber office for staff and visitors arriving for meetings or programs. Those with a valid COVID-19 vaccination exemption, or having valid documentation to present, will be required to take a rapid antigen screening test before entering. These tests will be provided by the Chamber at no cost.  

 

“These are precautionary measures put in place on behalf of the staff because our staff want assurances they are working in a safe environment and we’re doing whatever we can do to make sure that happens,” says Greg, adding like many businesses, the Chamber office is also covered under the Reopening Ontario Act and is entitled to invoke a vaccination policy.

 

Creating a safe environment will also be key at the Business After Hours event which is why the Chamber will provide colour-coded lanyards to participants when they arrive.

 

“Each colour will indicate that person’s comfort level of contact,” says Greg, noting that physical distancing and masks remain important. “Some people are very anxious to get out and meet others in-person, and others are anxious to get out and meet but aren’t quite comfortable enough to do so.”

 

Business After Hours takes place from 5-6:30 p.m. For more, visit https://bit.ly/3pdiUVI

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The war against COVID-19 is far from over, but small and medium-sized businesses throughout Waterloo Region have an important weapon at their disposal that can help bring it to an end much sooner.

 

Since early April, SMEs with less than 150 employees in our region have had the opportunity to receive free antigen screening kits courtesy of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce and our partner in this initiative the Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce.

 

To date, more than 500,000 of the free kits have been distributed throughout Waterloo Region in hopes of identifying asymptomatic or presymptomatic individuals to prevent them from spreading COVID-19 in the workplace, at home and around the community.

 

“Even though we have a large percentage of the population vaccinated, we can still carry the virus and give it to someone who is unvaccinated,” says Cambridge Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Greg Durocher. “It’s important that we continue to work to identify where the virus is and the simplest and cheapest way to do that is with rapid antigen screening kits that are still free for workplaces.”

 

To access the kits, SMEs can log into https://chambercheck.ca, a joint Chamber website powered by Axonify, and click on the ‘Workplace Self-Screening’ tab to order their two-week supply of Abbott Panbio Antigen screening kits using a very simple form.

 

The business is contacted, and a time arranged for them to pick-up their kits at our office at 750 Hespeler Rd. A designate from each SME is required to attend for the initial pick-up and watch a very short instructional video – only once - explaining how the kits are to be used and safely disposed. (When they attend our office to collect their kits, participants are also provided with surgical grade masks courtesy of Cambridge-based Eclipse Automation and wipes donated by Lysol).

 

Each SME is required to electronically submit screening results after each occasion, and it’s recommended to screen staff twice weekly. The accumulated data is reported to the Ministry of Health bimonthly. If a screen shows a positive result for COVID-19, the employee is required to leave the workplace and notify public health to arrange for a PCR Test and wait for further instructions from Waterloo Region Public Health.

 

“Collecting data is an important part of this process and will go a long way in allowing us to get this pandemic under control even quicker,” says Greg, noting screening non-vaccinated employees isn’t enough to keep everyone safe. “Everybody should continue to be screened because we know an unvaccinated employee who has COVID-19 can pass it on to a vaccinated employee who may show no symptoms.”

 

He says interest in the kits, which are available to all businesses not just Chamber Members, continues to come in waves. Following the success of our program, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce partnered with the Ministry of Health and Chambers of Commerce provincewide to distribute screening kits to thousands of Ontario workplaces.

 

“It’s been a variable thing. I think people get a little bit comfortable when the numbers drop and they decide not to screen,” says Greg. “But they should continue because only 25% of the world’s population have been vaccinated and we’ve got a long way to go yet when it comes to screening and testing before we’re out of this tunnel completely.”

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The sign outside the Hamilton Family Theatre in downtown Cambridge which usually is ablaze with light announcing current and upcoming productions for Drayton Entertainment has remained blank for some time.

 

But with vaccination rates rising and COVID-19 infection numbers continuing to slide downward, there is a growing sense of optimism in many business sectors, including tourism and sports and recreation, both which generate a hefty spinoff in our local economy and have been hit extremely hard by this crisis.

 

“It (optimism) permeates our industry because the pandemic has reinforced to many arts organizations about how important the arts are to so many Ontarians and recognizing the role they play contributing to a healthy and prosperous society,” says Steven Karcher, Executive Director of Drayton Entertainment. “I don’t think people realized how much they enjoy and appreciate the arts until they ceased to exist.”

 

He recalls how overnight the world changed for Drayton Entertainment in mid-March of 2020 when it was forced to cancel the run of its first show of the season Kinky Boots, which quickly led to pulling the plug on the entire theatre season at its seven stages.

 

“It was a difficult but necessary decision,” says Steven, noting how the company, which is also a registered charity, lost 100% of its revenue and had already incurred the pre-production costs of preparing 832 performances for its 2020 season. In fact, he says an increase of 20,000 tickets over the 2019 season had already been sold.

 

He says recovery will be a ‘multi-year’ effort and that for an arts organization like Drayton Entertainment, it is not something that can rebound in six months.

 

“We’re not able to just take our product and simply put it on a shelf and pivot to reopening with a notice of 48 hours,” says Steven. “We’re talking about an artistic process that takes anywhere from six to eight months in order to realize the end result that people will be seeing on stage.”

 

For sports organizations, detailed planning is also required to prepare of an upcoming season.

 

Indoor Soccer Park Sign“I think we were always optimistic there was going to be a season for our recreational league kids,” says Derrick Bridgman, General Manager of Cambridge Youth Soccer, referring to the 2020 season.

 

He says planning had started in March of last year to prepare for the upcoming season and that 1,000 children had registered to play outdoors when the scope of the pandemic became clear.

“At first we didn’t know how long it was going to last or was it only going to be that ‘magical’ two weeks, or would it be done in a couple of months so we could get our season in,” says Derrick.

 

He says thanks to a comprehensive return to play plan created by the Ontario Soccer Association, his group was able to see a limited amount of action on the field and by the end of last summer had managed to see a few games played.

 

However, that changed in the fall when new restrictions came into play and affected Cambridge Youth Soccer’s Fountain Street North indoor facility, which the group also rents to external users.

 

“We thought it (pandemic) would be behind us when it came to our indoor season but unfortunately there was such a significant impact on indoor sports,” says Derrick, referring to the indoor capacity levels which at one point only allowed up to 50 people – players included - at a game. “We had to get resourceful and creative, just like a lot of other sports organizations and try and maintain a positivity not only for our staff, but for our users. I think a lot of parents just want to get back to normal.”

 

He says there is a sense of optimism for the upcoming season, noting seeing those between 12-17 getting vaccinated has been a positive step. However, he says his group, like many sports organizations, remain at the ‘mercy’ of the province, health officials and the City of Cambridge whom they rent fields from in terms of possible restrictions.

 

“Also, there are parents that aren’t comfortable yet putting their kids back into sports until they’re confident the pandemic is over,” says Derrick, adding his organization is now looking to start its 2021 season the weekend of July 11 in accordance with the province’s three-step reopening plan.

 

“The government has been intentionally vague, in my opinion, in how it has crafted some of the wording when it comes to sports and recreation,” he says. “I think they did that on purpose so provincial sports organizations can amend their return to play documentation.”

 

Minto Schneider, CEO of Explore Waterloo Region, says the sports and recreation sector is returning a little faster than others.

 

“We’re also seeing conferences rebook as well. It’s happening, but happening slowly,” she says, noting experts are not predicting a full economic recovery until 2024. “Part of the challenge is that leisure travel will likely rebound more quickly, but business travel is not rebounding as quickly since conferences generally have a further booking window.”

 

Minto says also having the U.S./Canada border closed and seeing conferences cancelled in the GTA has also affected local tourism due to the substantial spinoff visitors bring to the hospitality industry in terms of hotel stays and restaurant visits.

“One of the things that really drives the tourism business in Waterloo Region is group business, whether it’s a sports tournament or a conference. Those are the things that really drive our visitor traffic,” she says, adding there have been limited ‘windows’ between lockdowns for potential visitors. “We’ve had to be very cautious of how we promote our region. We don’t want to be seen as trying to attract visitors from other areas, particularly at a time when Toronto and Peel were in the ‘Red Zone’. It’s been challenging.”

 

But in turn, Minto says Explore Waterloo Region has been promoting the region to its own residents, encouraging them to get out and see what exists in their own backyards.

 

“That’s been the silver lining to this whole thing. We’ve been able to, hopefully, create ‘ambassadors’ for Waterloo Region within the region itself.”

 

In the future, Minto also says more conferences will operate using a hybrid method, allowing participants the opportunity to attend in person or virtually.

 

“This will be great because never before will so many people have the have opportunity to learn more,” she says.

 

Several virtual initiatives launched in the past year by Drayton Entertainment have also helped his organization, says Steven. Among these was a virtual variety show engaging more than 40 artists using the video platform Vimeo.

 

“We were completely overwhelmed by the uptake on that,” he says, adding the show was viewed by more than 80,000 people worldwide and came away with 125,000 impressions.

 

This was followed by a cabaret series via Facebook, plus Drayton Entertainment has continued its ‘world famous’ 50/50 draw online.

 

“We’ve been able to give away significant jackpots in the three months we’ve been running that,” he says, adding having the 50/50 draw has also ensured Drayton Entertainment fans and supporters remain feeling connected to the organization.

 

And although a virtual component may still play a role for Drayton Entertainment once audiences are allowed to return to its theatres, Steven says it will never replace the feel of having a live audience.

 

“One of the things people don’t realize is how imperative a live audience is to not just a live theatre experience, but any live cultural experience,” he says, adding people crave the ‘connectivity’ of being together, even when it comes to family gatherings.

 

Minto agrees and says vaccinations and initiatives, such as the rapid screening kit program launched by the Cambridge and Kitchener Waterloo Chambers of Commerce, and Communitech, have been beneficial to the community.

 

“I think it has given people confidence that they can go to work. In our industry, we’ve had staff who’ve been afraid to go back to work because they hadn’t been working for a while and want to make sure they don’t bring something home with them to their families,” she says, adding Explore Waterloo Region and the Chambers continue to work with other partners to ensure the most up-to-date and reliable information is conveyed to all their stakeholders.

 

“I think everyone is really looking forward to a time when they can actually open their businesses and welcome people back,” she says.

 

For more on Explore Waterloo Region, visit http://www.explorewaterlooregion.com. For information about Drayton Festival, visit https://bit.ly/3z2aqop. And for more on Cambridge Youth Soccer, visit www.cambridgesoccer.ca

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