The Region of Waterloo is spending $3 million over the next two years on a Safe Ambassador Program that aims to help local businesses enhance their COVID-safety protocols to reopen and remain open.
The announcement came at a public health virtual launch event Tuesday.
Matthew Chandy, the region's director of Economic Development & Smart Waterloo Region, said the program was born out of a need expressed by local businesses.
"Since the pandemic started, businesses have been reaching out asking for guidance on how to upgrade safely and protect their employees, ensure that there's a safe reopening when the time is appropriate," he said.
To respond to those queries, Chandy said, the local chambers partnered with NSF International, a global non-profit public health agency, to develop a program customizable for the needs of the region's small- and medium-sized businesses.
"We're pleased to be the first community in the country to partner with the local chambers and NSF International to offer that support to enterprises across the region," he added.
Students hired from Conestoga College and University of Waterloo public health programs have been trained by NSF to go door-to-door and offer this free service to local entrepreneurs, Chandy said.
The first service tier, he said, is a 30 to 45-minute assessment during which the ambassadors will go through the business premises and provide guidance to set up safe operations for patrons and employees.
"If businesses want additional support, they can request a (free) tier two visit, where an ambassador will spend more time — up to two hours — with them going through much more detail with the business," Chandy said.
Once the procedure is done, the business will receive a COVID-safe window sticker, which will indicate to patrons that the business has completed the assessment, he said, adding, the sticker will also be available in digital form.
Vittoria Trinchi, director of sales and marketing for Homewood Suites locations in the area, was attending the launch event to talk about the hotel chain's experience with the ambassadors.
"Since the pandemic there have been mostly online resources provided to businesses on a provincial level or by our local public health to guide us how to safely operate our business," she said. "These resources were constantly being updated and sometimes very difficult to comprehend fully. They were also very impersonal.
"The ambassadors were very informative with most of the updated resources," said Trinchi. "They provided us with the personal approach we were longing to have. They went over our COVID protocols already implemented and provided suggestions if there were any."
Greg Durocher, president/CEO, Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, reiterated Trinchi's comments that there was confusion around rules.
"What's really important about this is NSF has a long and very good reputation in the industry for this type of service," he said. "They've crossed all their t's and dotted all their i's and their ambassadors are informative and it should eliminate a lot of the confusion."
Ian McLean, president/CEO, Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce, said the program is useful because every business wants every bit of information for a safe reopening and to remain open.
"There's a thirst for wanting to operate safely," he said. "We hear constantly from our members: what do I do so we can stay open?"
Paul Medeiros, managing director, Consulting & Technical Services, North America, NSF International, NSF International said that during the pandemic the organization started applying its long-standing expertise in the field of water quality, food safety, and infection control training and consulting, to helping businesses to adapt to the situation.
"During the last year, it became clear to us that businesses need help to operationalize the guidance they're receiving," he said. "It can't be a cookie cutter approach. It's the customization that is so critical to businesses."
Talking about the crew of 10 students already out in the field, Medeiros said, the hiring was done keeping two factors in mind.
"(It was) not just on their technical skills but based on their personality," he said. "There's a reason why they're called ambassadors and not auditors. Their going out in a supportive capacity to help the businesses. They have to have that right mindset and they do and are being very successful to this point."
There is more information available online via the Region of Waterloo website for businesses looking to access the program.