COVID-19: Ottawa expands lockdown programs as Omicron surges

Expanded programs set to cost $4b

Willie B. Thomas /Gettyimages

Ottawa is expanding wage subsidy and rental assistance programs as surging COVID-19 cases tied to the highly transmissible Omicron variant fling many businesses into uncertainty over the holidays.

With the expanded measures coming in at a cost of $4 billion, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday the federal government would be opening up eligibility to the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit and the Local Lockdown Program for anyone subjected to capacity-limiting restrictions.

The government is also expanding the definition of a lockdown, allowing workers and businesses to tap support if they’re affected by provincial orders restricting capacity at businesses by 50% or more.

Businesses that have faced such restrictions imposed by provincial authorities will now be able to get wage and rent support through the Local Lockdown Program if they can show monthly revenue has decreased compared with the same month in 2019. The revenue threshold of the program is also being lowered from a 40% decline to a 25% decline.

Workers who’ve lost 50% or more of their income due to new capacity limits will now be able to tap the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit, which will offer them $300 a week.

Eligibility for the benefit goes into effect retroactively to December 19 and will run through to February 12, 2022.

The $4-billion cost of the expanded programs is being covered by the $4.5 billion the federal government previously earmarked for Omicron response in last week’s fiscal update.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said public companies that use the wage subsidy will see access to such support “clawed back” if top-level executive compensation increases next year compared with 2019.

“These companies will also become ineligible if they pay dividends while receiving the wage subsidy,” she said.

On Tuesday, the province unveiled a string of new restrictions on businesses aimed at mitigating against the spread of the Omicron variant.

Beginning end of day Wednesday and stretching to January 18, no indoor organized events of any size will be allowed in the province. That includes small weddings and funeral receptions.

Bars, night clubs, gyms and dance studios will be shuttered during this four-week period as well.

Last week saw the introduction of new measures requiring seated venues hosting more than 1,000 people – for example, Rogers Arena, where the Vancouver Canucks play – cut down to 50% capacity.

Those capacity limits now apply to venues of all sizes, such as concerts and cinemas.

All sports tournaments across the province will have to be cancelled and restaurants will once again need to limit tables to parties of six, plus set up physical barriers or distancing.

This comes in addition to new restrictions announced last week that will see indoor personal gatherings limited to residents of a household plus 10 additional individuals, or else one additional household if all are aged 12 and older and are fully vaccinated.

The province is also suspending all sports tournaments and cancelling all organized New Year’s Eve parties, unless they are seated-only events such as restaurant gatherings. No restrictions on hours of operations or access to booze will be imposed, unlike last year when many restaurants were informed of restrictions at the last minute.

The measures unveiled last week are scheduled to be lifted January 31.