The province has not increased financial aid programs for businesses hard-hit by fourth wave pandemic restrictions despite extending the measures another three weeks.
"We’re really in a state of purgatory when government says we’re restricted to 50 per cent capacity. Numbers are spiking, people are afraid, and they don’t want to come out," said Scot McTaggart, owner of Fusion Grill. "Then people think that… we’re open, so we’re OK, so there’s no need to order takeout or delivery."
McTaggart said his sales have dropped 75 per cent since the new restrictions — which include a 50 per cent capacity limit on restaurants — took effect Dec. 21.
"This is a worst case scenario," he said. "We absolutely need help."
In December, the province announced its Sector Support Program to help companies affected by the latest restrictions. The $22 million program would provide up to $12,000 per eligible business, dependent on the company’s size.
At the time, Finance Minister Scott Fielding and Economic Development and Jobs Minister Jon Reyes said they’d work with the business community on further aid should the restrictions extend past Jan. 11.
On Jan. 7, the province announced via news release the orders would continue until at least Feb. 1.
Now, the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce is calling for more funding.
"Businesses have continually shouldered the brunt of public health measures," said Chuck Davidson, the organization’s CEO. "There does need to be compensation for that. They can’t continue to just rack up the debt to a point where they can no longer operate."
A provincial government spokesperson did not answer when asked if there were plans to top up the Sector Support Program or provide money another way. Instead, they noted the program is open for applications until Jan. 31.
"The Province of Manitoba remains committed to working with businesses across the province to help them continue to provide employment and quality goods and services," the spokesperson wrote.
Widespread rapid testing is another need, according to the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce.
"The number of individuals and employees that are off work right now is significant," Davidson said. "I think rapid testing will allow (staff) to get back to their place of employment in a more timely fashion."
On Tuesday, the province announced an expansion of COVID-19 rapid antigen testing programs to symptomatic workers in specified critical services.
It had distributed rapid tests to businesses through the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, but the program halted early due to a lack of supply.
The program should "be up and running (again) shortly, depending on supply from the Federal government," a provincial spokesperson wrote.
There are caveats: the program provides serial testing for asymptomatic unvaccinated employees at companies who’ve put vaccine mandates in place. It’s also for symptomatic vaccinated workers of prioritized businesses.
"Vaccinated essential workers… can quickly know if they can go into work if feeling only very mild symptoms," the spokesperson wrote.
Employees at trucking companies, pharmacies and telecommunications might fall into the "prioritized businesses" category, the spokesperson wrote.
Private companies of all Manitoba geographic regions will be able to access the program through the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, the spokesperson wrote.
McTaggart of Fusion Grill said he’ll shut his restaurant down any time one of his four staff have symptoms.
"We’re not taking any chances," he said, adding he’d take rapid tests if they were available to all.
Across the Board, a board game café in the Exchange District, has temporarily closed due to staff illness.
"I could see (rapid tests available through work) making it a little bit easier at least, giving the staff members… some answers quicker," said Nick Mann, the café’s general manager.
"It’s maybe a little more… of a sense of assuredness that they’re doing the right thing if they are coming in or not… rather than just flying blind," he said.
Westland Construction has been accessing rapid tests for three months through a federal government program.
"It’s a really good system," said Nadine Balkaran, the company’s office administrator.
When needed, she contacts a pharmacy partnered with the program, orders the rapid tests and picks them up within a day or two. The business has used about 25, and there hasn’t been added difficulty getting tests due to Omicron, Balkaran said.
Manitoba is waiting on test kits from Ottawa, according to a provincial spokesperson. The 15 million expected for the first three months of 2022 haven’t arrived yet, they said.
Tens of thousands have already been distributed at testing sites, doctors’ offices, social services groups and schools, the spokesperson wrote.
Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.