Ontario Construction News staff writer
One word – uncertainty – describes Ontario’s architectural, engineering and construction community’s sense of COVID-19’s impact as the pandemic approaches the fall and winter seasons.
As the pandemic heads into its second six months, he province – and Canada as a whole — appears to be faring much better than the US, with per-capita case numbers and death rates well more 50 percent lower than reported south of the border. As well, Canadian government business support programs have been much more stable and reliable than those in the US, as continuing public infrastructure funding keeps many designers and contractors busy.
However, the story isn’t perfect. After the province relaxed restrictions and shut-downs in the summer, public health officials have recently reported a spike in new cases – and the problems may grow more severe during the cold winter.
“Some firms are gradually opening their offices mid-September, but not all staff are returning, so a hybrid model is in place for the foreseeable future,” said Pelin Yeter-McKinnon, business development manager at Hariri Pontanni Architects. “Each province has its own staged approach to reopening the economy and anticipating the ‘second wave’.”
“While some funding streams have been announced, such as transit infrastructure, the industry is also awaiting for additional ones to be launched by the federal government,” she said.
Sandra Skivsky, chair of the National Trade Contractors Council of Canada, said the recovery from the initial crisis has been uneven. “The residential and civil segments have more activity than other segments in the ICI market,” she said. “The stimulus funding has not translated into building activity as quickly as hoped, outside of road work and bridges, and there were a lot of projects cancelled and postponed coming out of the shut down period.”
“There are still supply chain issues that are causing delays and the workforce has not recovered to its pre-pandemic levels,” Skivsky said. “In fact in Ontario the construction workforce saw a contraction in August, according to the Labour Force Survey. So the industry is busy, with less people but productivity also remains down.”
Lindsay Keir, marketing lead with Architecture49 Inc., who had reported things were going well at the 280-employee practice near the pandemic’s start, says conditions have remained positive.
“Things have been going really well for us,” she said. “The company has been able to adapt and function as if COVID wasn’t even an issue. The backlog, and the amount of business coming in, and the businesses and buildings are working just the way they should.”
Skivsky said the federal government’s original 75 percent wage subsidy program has helped some, but not all, trade contractors. The government revised and extended the program during the summer, increasing payments to businesses most hard-hit by the pandemic, with subsidies approaching 85 per cent, while giving access on a lesser scale to other businesses who experienced a significant revenue decline but less than the original 30 percent threshold. However, the government said it plans to taper down the subsidies and end the program by December – potentially adding to the stress of the normal Canadian winter construction industry slow-downs.