The federal government says it plans to slowly reopen Service Canada centres it shuttered in late March over public health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Up to 90 centres across the country will gradually reopen in July, starting with 14 on Wednesday. Further openings are to be guided by public health advice as well as how many Canadians each centre serves.
The government has spent the past few weeks upgrading the centres to put up clear barriers at counters, signs to encourage physical distancing and reduce seating in waiting areas.
Personal protective equipment will also be provided to staff at centres that reopen.
Face masks will be offered to people visiting centres in provinces or municipalities that have mandated their use in indoor public spaces.
Anyone going to a centre that doesn’t fall under any such provincial or municipal requirement will be encouraged to wear a masks and use hand-sanitizer.
While the newly reopened centres will handle queries for social insurance numbers, employment insurance and the Canada Pension Plan among others, the government says passport and biometrics services won’t be available at first.
Days after public health authorities closed businesses and ordered workers to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19, the Liberals closed the sprawling network of Service Canada centres.
Some of the offices, such as one tucked inside Ottawa’s city hall, had already started to close before the official announcement in March as confirmed cases of COVID-19 increased and workers were needed elsewhere, or resisted going in.
The government says an online Service Canada portal opened in response to the closures has seen more than 700,000 requests. That’s about half the number of in-person visits Service Canada locations would see in the same period in normal times.
In a release, the government is still urging Canadians to use online services wherever possible, including to book appointments online for in-person help.
The network of 318 Service Canada centres, along with almost 250 more outreach centres, received about 8.4 million visits during the 12-month period between April 2018 and March 2019. The figure, noted in a recently posted evaluation of federal services, included over 1.9 million people walking in to use a self-service kiosk.