Manitoba business owners and commerce stakeholders are angered by Premier Brian Pallister’s extension for COVID-19 restrictions — which come without any new emergency support, roadmaps to recovery like other provinces, nor public-health data indicating why the orders were necessary for smaller storefronts and retailers.
"Frankly speaking," said Chuck Davidson, president of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, "I’m not sure why they’re refusing to provide these pertinent details.
"You have to ask yourself, how would it feel not knowing what comes next and how you’re expected to pay your bills or pay your rent, when no future plans or financial aid is being announced or laid out by the officials in charge?"
On Thursday, Pallister joined chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin to extend measures which shut down businesses including gyms, restaurants, bars and personal services like nail salons or barbershops.
Retailers and malls will be allowed to stay open at 10 per cent capacity or 100 occupants, but shopping centres are urged to prevent people gathering in their spaces. Employers are also ordered to let staffers work from home wherever possible.
Orders have been tweaked to add new powers for public health to shut down businesses with multiple coronavirus cases among staff, Roussin said, yet refused to provide exact details about how that will be imposed and whether enforcement will be ramped up.
Asked why these measures were extended without closing non-essential businesses like large malls, despite repeated calls from doctors and other health-care professionals, Pallister first said "these orders are really still quite significant, the most stringent in the country if you look at them clearly."
Then later, when asked why business support hasn’t been extended, Pallister said the exact opposite to defend the lack of aid.
"Today’s announcement for the most part doesn’t change the orders we announced last Friday," the premier said, adding he does "have other endeavours planned" for support but will not announce anything yet.
"I am not going to be Pollyanna here. We’re in the middle of a really serious challenge... But we have had some of the most generous supports and easiest to apply for and get across the country. We take our support of our small business population very, very seriously."
Canadian Footwear president Brian Scharfstein, who runs several boutiques around Winnipeg, says it’s stressful hearing the premier’s comments.
"I understand that it’s important we get these numbers down and we’ve been following every guideline given to us, even going above and beyond that," he said. "But I’m concerned because this is highly unsustainable for businesses. We’ll inevitably lose them without support and if these restrictions keep going on."
Jonathan Alward, Manitoba director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said that’s something many other owners and managers have expressed to him as well.
"To say we’ve had the greatest and most generous support and then extend restrictions for this long without that aid just isn’t a good enough answer," said Alward.
Bram Strain, president of the Business Council of Manitoba, said he’s disappointed about the lack of a clear and predictable plan for Manitoba’s economy, as multiple other provinces — including Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia — have already provided reopening roadmaps hinging on vaccinations.
Loren Remillard, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, agreed. "Right now, we have no metrics provided or data given about what comes next," he said.
"And honestly, it’s not just giving businesses a way to plan for the future with a roadmap. Because, yes, it is that, but it’s also so much more for everyone. It’s hope, it’s the light at the end of the tunnel and it’s an incentive to get vaccinated."
The extended orders go into effect Saturday and will remain in place until at least June 12.
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press.