Sasquatch smiles while illustrating social distancing on a sign on Esplanade Avenue during a quiet, cloudy morning. Businesses along Harrison’s beachfront street are among many in Agassiz-Harrison awaiting word about provincial COVID-19 restrictions. Restrictions will be reassessed on May 25, and any decisions made that day could change the course of the summer for local tourism and business. (Adam Louis/Observer)

‘Waiting with bated breath’: Local businesses grapple with lack of predictabilty amid COVID restrictions

Mixed emotions as Lower Mainlanders rediscover Agassiz-Harrison, businesses operate online

During the pandemic, Canwest Art Gallery’s business has largely shifted online and foreign buyers have shown no hestation buying art from the dozens of Canadian artists who display their work in Harrison.

From a certain point of view, Canwest owner and Harrison-Agassiz Chamber of Commerce co-chair Peter Beal said the pandemic has forced businesses to move back to the days of the milk man and the heyday of home delivery.

“I just started getting grocery delivery; what a great service!” he said. “In the old days, that’s how things came to your house. You’d have the greengrocer and all these trades you called on. These are not new ideas we’re getting back to – just a little quicker.”

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Focusing on online sales is one of a few methods small businesses throughout Agassiz-Harrison are using to weather a drought of all but local visitors.

With the weather warming up and restrictions potentially changing come May 25, many small businesses in Agassiz-Harrison are unsure what the coming months may bring.

“(Restrictions are) definitely affecting foot traffic, not just for us, but I’m sure for everybody,” Beal said. “We’re just waiting with bated breath to see what’s going to happen on the 25th. That’s really going to affect the rest of the summer.”

While local support for small, local businesses is certainly present, Tourism Harrison River Valley executive director Robert Reyerse said the effects of tourism’s absence continues to reverberate across the area.

“We can’t encourage travel right now and are focusing locally,” Reyerse said. “We do our best to support local, but (businesses) are having a tough go of it, no question.”

Even with a lack of tourism from beyond the Lower Mainland and beyond Canada’s borders, Beal noted many Lower Mainlanders are rediscovering Agassiz-Harrison, having visited Harrison in particular years or even decades prior to the pandemic.

Reyerse said the provincial government has done “as well as can be expected” in aiding small businesses, but navigating the grant application process can be daunting for those not well-versed in the procedure.

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“It can be a bit challenging,” Reyerse said of the government grant programs. “The programs are there; it’s just a question of figuring out how to access them.”

Beal encouraged businesses to work with the local chamber. With he and Jennifer Peters acting as co-chairs, Beal hopes to breathe new life into the chamber and better unite businesses through educating on the benefits of working with the chamber and expanding outreach and communication.

“We need dialogue between the chamber and businesses, and that (lack is) through no fault of anybody,” Beal said. “I think the chamber is very needed right now. Let’s all be cognitive of what needs to be done to solve the problem, because I think these times are here for a while. They’re not going to magically disappear.”

In terms of safety, even with visitors coming and going, Agassiz-Harrison has remained relatively low in COVID cases throughout the pandemic. Reyerse credits a close relationship with Destination B.C. in helping create Agassiz-Harrison’s COVID messaging about COVID safety, travel and protocol reminders.

“They’ve been a great resource,” he added. “Some of these health orders have not been clear, and they’ve been helpful in getting answers and providing context on how to move forward.”

Last spring, prior to the provincial state of emergency, Harrison officials closed down access to main business and beach artery Esplanade Avenue to visitors. Mayor Leo Facio said he does not anticipate a repeat of such precautions this year, but said signage encouraging COVID-safe practices will be in place once more through the summer.

“I think we’ve been very fortunate in Harrison,” he said. “Businesses are doing an excellent job accommodating (for restrictions.)”

As for upcoming annual events in Agassiz-Harrison, Reyerse ruled out Harrison Beer Fest for this year. He said Bands on the Beach could potentially resume in-person concerts in 2021 if small crowds are permitted in the fall. Lights on the Lake may be another event still on the table.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel, but it turns out the tunnel is longer than we thought,” Reyerse concluded. “Predictability is a real challenge.”

As small businesses and their surrounding communities across B.C. wait out the pandemic, Reyerse said the message remains the same: stay safe, stay informed and be prepared for positive change.

Agassiz-Harrison Observer

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