As shuttered businesses in Manitoba bide their time before a possible reopening, the province is expanding emergency support to help them survive Code Red pandemic restrictions.
At a news conference Tuesday, Premier Brian Pallister announced he’s pushing the deadline for the $5,000-a-pop Bridge Grant program by a month to Jan. 31, while expanding eligibility criteria to include more types of businesses.
Hotels, resorts, lodges, travel agencies, janitorial services and operators of licensed passenger-transportation companies — impacted by the public-health orders — will now be allowed to apply for the grants.
"This will never make up for the profit opportunities that have been lost and the hardship, emotionally or psychologically, to those folks who have dedicated themselves to their small businesses. We know that," Pallister told reporters. "But we also know that some support is essential."
Calling the new stream of funding "part two of our assistance," Pallister once again incorrectly touted Manitoba’s emergency programs as "the most generous in Canada" on Tuesday. A Free Press provincial comparison from coast to coast has shown that claim to be false.
Pallister also incorrectly claimed those programs proffer funds "with limited red tape." Emails between the province and business owners, previously shared with the Free Press, have shown long exchanges of government employees questioning "time sheets" for small-firm workers, proof of pay stubs or bank deposits in workers’ accounts, and bank statements dating back to last spring before even considering to provide them with aid.
The Bridge Grant program was first announced on Nov. 10 to provide $5,000 to businesses, not-for-profits and charities directly impacted by the province’s pandemic response. It was later extended to Dec. 8 and expanded to support indirectly impacted home-based businesses, with the promise that a second payment would be made if health orders remained in place past Jan. 1.
Since code-red measures have now been extended until at least Jan. 22, the premier said those payments were made by the province this past weekend.
"To make sure people don’t fall through the cracks or miss the opportunity to apply for supports, we’re extending supports," said Pallister, while remaining mum about whether those assistance programs — many of which have expired or are set to expire this month — will be extended, should restrictions continue.
Reaction from the business community about Pallister’s announcement Tuesday was mixed.
Stakeholders were glad to hear about the expansion, but they said businesses would rather be allowed to safely reopen than given more emergency funding. Rules should have been adjusted to allow capacity limits or appointment services for storefronts, said advocates.
"It’s a favourable first step to acknowledging our industry," said Scott Jocelyn, president of the Manitoba Hotel Association, who wishes the provincial aid to continue after January.
"Unfortunately, the reality is, we have big obstacles ahead and we won’t find a new normal before many, many other businesses," he said. "Right now, we can’t do anything we’d normally be able to do."
Chuck Davidson, president of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, said he’s not sure the funding will be enough after more than 10 weeks of closures.
"It’s a very little bit of help right now," he said. "But I want to be clear: business owners know they can safely open things up. And that’s why we’re pushing, at the very least, for soft reopenings to give them a chance."
"It’s hard to get everyone the help the need, so I have to give the government credit for that," said Jonathan Alward, Prairies director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. "Now we want to make sure all those allocations go to the hands of businesses."
Last week, the province said it has spent $180 million in total towards emergency funding. But that figure is a far cry from what’s been allocated to those programs.
According to provincial data, only $16.2 million has been paid out of the initial combined $120-million budget for the Back to Work in Manitoba, Back to Work This Summer and Student Wage Subsidy programs. Out of the Gap Protection program, $59 million has been paid from an earlier budget of at least $120 million.
The Manitoba Bridge Grant has so far paid approximately $104 million to 10,740 eligible applicants, which includes the first payment Nov. 16 to Dec. 31 and second deposits this past weekend. However, that number is out of a total of $200 million allocated towards the program.
"These unprecedented economic challenges aside, at a bare minimum, what we don’t want to see is any allocated funding left by the end of this," said Loren Remillard, CEO and president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.
Remillard said there is a "soft spot" that has been indicated through recent research in the U.S., whereby transmissions can be limited while keeping the economy running (through 25-per-cent capacity limits with people physically-distanced and wearing masks).
"Our hope is that this will be the last lockdown blanketed for our businesses," he said.
But Pallister said he doesn’t want a "yo-yoing" with COVID-19 restrictions.
"I’d like to see a sustainable reopening that doesn’t have to go jumping around back and forth," he said. "We’re in this together, and we’re doing it all to bend the curve for each other — business or not."
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for this Free Press reporting position comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.