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Why Most Nova Scotia Businesses Aren’t Worried About Coronavirus – Yet

Image: Downtown Halifax Business Association Facebook/Brenden Sommerhalder

HALIFAX – As Coronavirus continues to spread around the world, many are beginning to worry about the virus’s economic consequences. But many Nova Scotia businesses don’t share those concerns.

The Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) first surfaced in Wuhan, China in December of 2019. Since then, close to 100,000 people have been infected from 79 countries and The World Health Organization has called the virus a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”

The Nova Scotia Health Authority says there hasn’t been any cases of the virus reported in the province. As of March 2, there were 27 confirmed cases in Canada: 18 in Ontario, eight in B.C., and one in Quebec.

Fears about the virus’s spread have lead governments around to world to issue travel bans and advisories. Cargo flights are also being stopped, and many worry the world economy will suffer thanks to these restrictions.

In Halifax, however, very few businesses have experienced anything out of the ordinary as a result of the Coronavirus. Most say they’re not at all concerned about the economic impact of its spread—at least for now.

Ivy Ho is the director of communications with the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, which represents about 1,600 businesses in the Downtown Halifax core.

She says that, as a whole, her members have expressed almost no concern about Coronavirus.

“As far as specific concerns, there don’t appear to be any,” Ho says.

She points to a meeting the organization held last week with members where the issue of Coronavirus “never even came up, even just in conversation before or after the meeting.”

However, that doesn’t mean no one in the Halifax business community is thinking about the virus. Certain parts of the province’s economy are more vulnerable to international uncertainty, and people working in those areas are definitely thinking about the virus.

But even within those vulnerable parts of the economy not everyone is worried. Even fewer are actually experiencing any effects.

Tourism could be affected, but it’s still too early to tell

One group of Halifax businesses that Coronavirus could impact significantly are those in the tourism industry. Travel bans and trip cancellations would hit tourism businesses hard, something that Tourism Nova Scotia is well aware of.

“It’s much too early to speculate, but of course there could be an impact on tourism revenues and visitation–we can’t ignore that possibility,” Zandra Alexander, a communications advisor with Tourism Nova Scotia, said in an email.

So far, however, Tourism Nova Scotia “hasn’t heard much regarding direct impacts” of the virus on businesses in the province.

“What’s happening right now is bigger than tourism. Public safety is our biggest concern and we will follow the lead of public health experts and Destination Canada,” she says.

Coronavirus is spreading, but right now it’s primarily infecting people in China. Alexander says Chinese visitors tend to travel through the summer and fall months, and usually book about six weeks out.

Even if fewer Chinese travelers make it to Nova Scotia this year, the impact shouldn’t be too significant. In 2018, when the last full year of data is available, the province saw 2,413,000 visitors. Of those, 104,100 came from “overseas.” That’s only a little more than four percent, and includes people coming from anywhere outside of the U.S. and Canada – not just China.

“While China is certainly a target market for us, the majority of our visitors come from Canada and the U.S. Our other target markets are Ontario, Quebec, Northeastern U.S., the U.K., and Germany,” Alexander says.

Most visitors to Nova Scotia come from within Canada. So, unless the virus spreads significantly through this country, the economic impact on tourism to Nova Scotia is likely to remain low.

Many tourism-related companies aren’t worriedyet

Talk to tourism-related businesses in the province, and that reality plays out.

Susan Downey Lim owns and runs Grape Escapes Nova Scotia Wine Tours. She says Coronavirus is “on our radar,” but that she hasn’t noticed any impacts on her business yet.

Susan Downey Lim
Image: Facebook

“Just in general, as a human being, we’re concerned about it for sure. But business-wise we haven’t really been too concerned at this point. We’re just waiting to see how it plays out,” she says.

So far, Downey Lim says she hasn’t taken any special steps to prepare her business for a potential impact and hasn’t changed any of her operations.

Tom Puthiakunnel, the owner of United Travels, is in a similar place.

He said he’s seen scares similar to Coronavirus in the past, and that his business always recovers.

“I think we will be OK,” he says. “Especially being around in this market for 31 years, I’ve seen many things come and go. There’s always something going around, this time it’s just Corona that’s the villain.”

Puthiakunnel says some of his clients are postponing trips because they’re worried about Coronavirus, but so far no one has cancelled.

In fact, he said his agency had one of its best Februaries ever this year. Downey Lim also says her bookings for this year are up.

Puthiakunnel did admit, however, that if the Coronavirus gets significantly worse the travel industry will probably be hit the hardest.

“The travel industry is one of the ones that’s going to get hit bad. A lot of the time it’s not a must, it’s not a necessity to travel,” he says, adding that cancellations will mean a lot of lost revenue.

“But that’s not the most important thing at this point. A healthy customer is a return customer,” he says with a chuckle.

Companies like Puthiakunnel and Downey Lim’s, that serve a mix of tourists and locals, don’t appear to be facing significant consequences from Coronavirus.

But Downey Lim says there are some in the tourism industry that are quite worried.

“Some of the operators that are almost 100 percent tourism-focused, they definitely would be a lot more concerned because there is a bit of a fear of what will happen to the cruise traffic,” she says.

Cruise ships bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to Halifax each year, and a significant disruption to that traffic “would affect us in a really big way” during prime cruise months.

No impact yet on cruise traffic

However strong fears of floundering cruise ship traffic are, right now, they’re nothing but fears.

According to Lane Farguson, the media relations manager at the Port of Halifax, the city is on track to have a record-breaking year of cruise traffic.

Right now, 208 cruise ships are scheduled to stop at the port, bringing about 350,000 passengers to the city. In 2019, 179 cruise ships graced the city’s port, unloading around 324,000 people.

Queen Mary 2 parked at Halifax Harbour
Image: Trevor Nichols/Huddle.today

But Farguson admits this year’s number could still change.

“We don’t know what the impact of Coronavirus is going to be. At this point, the schedule hasn’t changed, and at this point we haven’t had any operational changes here as well,” Farguson says.

While things so far this year look very good for the city, Farguson says it’s impossible to tell how much of an impact Coronavirus will end up having.

“The reality is it is evolving every single day: there’s something new or there’s something different. So we’re following [the progress of the virus] closely, working not just with the cruise partners, but also with the public health agency in Canada and Transport Canada just to make sure that we have the appropriate response.”

Farmers wary but not worried

The province’s farmers are also monitoring the spread of Coronavirus closely. But Victor Oulton, the president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture, says not many have felt its impact yet.

Oulton says that, aside from a recent plunge in the stock markets that drove down the price of commodities like beef and chicken, most farmers aren’t feeling any strong effects of Coronavirus.

“There’s not a lot going on just yet,” he says.

Oulton points out that many big agriculture crops in Nova Scotia aren’t exported to affected areas. Most Nova Scotia apples go to the U.S., and corn is grown primarily to be used as feed right here in the province.

He also says trade between Nova Scotia and China “hasn’t been great” over the last year thanks to political tensions between the Canadian and Chinese governments.

That means exports to China were already lagging before Coronavirus became a big concern.

Overall, most Nova Scotia farmers are wary of the potential impact of the virus, but at this point not that worried.

“I guess everybody just hopes that it’s not going to get to be a full-blown epidemic,” Oulton says.

Lobster situation ‘bad’, but could be much worse

If one sector of the province is really feeling economic pain from Coronavirus, it’s fishery.

Leo Muise, the executive director of the Nova Scotia Seafood Alliance, says the situation for seafood producers in Nova Scotia is bad.

Leo Muise
Image: Nova Scotia Seafood Alliance

In late January, planes largely stopped flying between Canada and China. Muise says when that happened, seafood exports from Nova Scotia to China dropped to “virtually zero.”

China is a major market for Nova Scotia lobster, so all that lost business has had an impact on price.

Muise says that “before the virus hit” the wharf price for a pound of lobster was around $10.25 per pound. Since then it dropped to as low as $6 per pound and now sits at about $8 per pound.

However, Muise says that all things considered, the situation for lobster fisherman is about as good as it could be.

“This is terrible, it sucks, and it’s too bad it happened. But if it had to happen it couldn’t have happened at a better time,” he says.

He explains that only a small part of the province is open for lobster fishing right now, and less-than-ideal weather has meant many aren’t out fishing anyway.

Had the Coronavirus hit during a different season, he says, the impact would have been far more widespread.

“If this had have happened in the first week of December or the end of November, it would have been an absolute disaster,” he says.

Muise also says he’s encouraged by the fact that a little bit of Nova Scotia lobster is still making its way to China, despite the grounded flights.

Melissa MacDonald, from the Halifax Airport Authority, says this time of year there would usually be seven or eight cargo planes flying between Halifax for China every week. Right now, just one is travelling to South Korea, with a little bit of its cargo destined for China.

Some of that cargo, Muise says, is Nova Scotia lobster.

He says this is a sign that Chinese buyers are still very interested in Nova Scotia lobster, so the industry here should recover once Coronavirus has run its course.

“We’re anticipating that sales will certainly go back to very close to where they were before, if they don’t go back to 100 percent,” he says.