Like the travellers he serves, Chris Mitchell has driven a winding and bumpy road over the last 11 months.
As the manager of Big River Service Centre in Fort Providence – the only gas station and shop on the 480-kilometre route from Hay River to Yellowknife – Mitchell has been in a unique spot to observe the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the NWT.
“It has been really bad,” he said.
The early impacts of Covid-19, namely the border closure in March hit Big River fast and hard, reducing business by more than 30 per cent.
The shop relies on three customer sectors: the transportation industry, territorial travellers and non-NWT tourists. The steep drop in out-of-territory tourist arrivals abruptly took out that segment.
“All the people from rural Alberta who come up to do fishing, that stopped. The tourists who come up in the summer was stopped. It was like going from 60 to 0 in 3.9 seconds,” he said.
Layoffs saw staff numbers fall from 32 to eight in March. The restaurant switched to take-out only and the bar was closed.
Revenues picked up a little bit in May when the GNWT changed the rules on liquor licenses, permitting Big River to sell off-sales wine and spirits.
“Before we could only sell beer. That really helped us out. It helped us recover,” Mitchell said.
Dining was brought back in the restaurant with social distancing rules.
In the summer, regional and staycation travellers helped restore some of the loss of tourism.
“The summer wasn’t so bad because lots of people took staycations and travelled around. By the end of the summer we were satisfied that we were still paying the bills. Things were moving (again).”
He’s been able to rehire 26 of his staff and revenues are about 10 per cent higher now than they were one year ago.
“It’s the new normal,” Mitchell said, though non-NWT tourists remain out of the picture.
Warm food, hot tempers
While he’s is grateful that some amount of normalcy has returned, his experience with customers has shown there’s still a long way to go.
In the almost seven years he has been managing Big River, he has come to appreciate the interactions with many types of people in the store.
“We’re customer service. We’re here to help. But in this pandemic peoples’ needs are more focused. And peoples’ tempers are a lot shorter. We’re not having an easy time. It’s almost a completely different style of business. The customers aren’t as cheerful.”
Some have tried to defy Big River’s rule on wearing face masks inside, an important safeguard for the shop since it is the first place on the highway where travellers can get food or gas if they don’t stop in Hay River.
“If they’re coming from Alberta and going into quarantine, customers are only allowed in to pay for gas. If they’re coming from Alberta they’ve already got their food and drinks. One person from the party is allowed in to buy food and drinks. If it’s only one person we would buy the items for them. They pump their own gas and pay at the pump.”
If customers refuse to wear a mask, they have to buy one or leave. Mitchell said it has happened about half a dozen times. In most cases it was people driving up from Alberta. In a few cases it was NWT residents.
He recalls some highlights of his time working at the service centre, experiences that have become rarer with less people driving through and after Big River reduced its pre-Covid hours of 6 a.m. to midnight, to 7 a.m. until 11 p.m.
“People can get out here and get some gas, get a drink, get some munchies, stretch their legs. People have said ‘we’re so glad you’re open.’ It’s so rewarding to hear that,” he said.
“The first Christmas after I started here, I was the only one in the building. The first four vehicles that stopped here that day would’ve been stranded because they didn’t have fuel to go on. I didn’t sacrifice a Christmas, I made some new friends. They got service that they would have to wait four hours to get. We’re in a unique situation here in the North.
“’You sell Jello?’, ‘That bison burger was the best I ever had.’ These little quirks pointed out by grateful customers (provide) a truly rewarding feeling and it’s why I like retail.”
Mitchell hopes that the start of the vaccination program will bring back more customers and freedom to move around again like before last March.
“I haven’t had a day off since (November). I can’t go down to Edmonton on a supply trip to save some money. I can’t take equipment down to Edmonton to get it fixed and bring it back unless I self-isolate for two weeks. (But) there’s light at the end of the tunnel, to use a common metaphor. It’s a very long tunnel. There’s perception of an end to this. The next (vaccine) round will be next month. Hopefully the numbers start dropping including the deaths, because we can’t lose our Elders in the North.”