Provincial support for Manitoba businesses is imminent as fourth wave restrictions choke some companies’ peak season profits while advocates and stakeholders fear for struggling companies’ futures.
"A program to provide further support for businesses impacted by the most recent public health restrictions is being finalized," Finance Minister Scott Fielding said in a written statement.
The province will announce details Wednesday, according to the statement.
On Tuesday, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and Restaurants Canada issued a letter urging premiers to provide financial aid amidst Omicron-induced restrictions.
In Manitoba, restaurants, gyms, movie theatres, museums and libraries have a 50 per cent capacity limit. Proof of immunization is required, except at libraries. Large group gatherings face the same restrictions.
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Few groups in society have faced economic hardship during the pandemic the way small and medium-sized businesses have.
Public-health restrictions that repeatedly closed businesses or limited their operations were necessary to mitigate death and severe illness. The restrictions worked: infection rates and hospitalizations fell dramatically every time they were imposed.
"(Businesses have) taken on significant debt, and now they’re dealing with inflation and labour shortages and supply chain disruptions," said Kathleen Cook, the CFIB’s senior policy analyst for Manitoba. "At a time where all of their costs are going up, they’re going to see a significant reduction in their revenues."
"For some businesses, it (could) be the final nail in the coffin."
Over 25 per cent of the 97 Manitoba businesses to answer a November CFIB survey — that hadn’t returned to pre-pandemic revenues — said they were at risk of closing in the next six months. Nationally, nearly two-thirds of 2,407 respondents said their sales are still lower than normal; almost a quarter of the group figured they could fail in the upcoming half year.
Ottawa passed Bill C-2 last week, which offers programs to Canadian businesses whose operations have been affected by the pandemic. However, the bar is so high that 80 per cent of small businesses don’t qualify, according to the CFIB’s pre-Omicron data.
"If a business is operating at 50 per cent capacity, that’s a huge revenue loss, so they should still be eligible for some support," Cook said.
The CFIB and Restaurants Canada are rallying premiers for two reasons — so provinces will provide financial relief, and so they can reach Ottawa.
"(Premiers are) in conversation with their federal counterparts all the time, and there’s strength in numbers," Cook said. "If we can get a significant number of provincial premiers on the same page, hopefully that can move the needle a little bit."
In their letter, the CFIB and Restaurants Canada urge the federal government to revert to wage and rent subsidy tactics used in spring, where businesses receive aid on a sliding scale as a percentage of their revenue losses.
The letter calls for extra lockdown supports and a reopening of the Canada Emergency Business Account loan, with larger forgivable portions and delayed repayment requirements.
Willows Christopher, the owner of Shrugging Doctor Beverage Company, took out CEBA loans when they were offered last year and in early 2021. His front-of-house bar is at 50 per cent capacity, his liquor store sales have been down for nearly two years due to no sampling, and he’s watching the days progress until he has to pay back his $40,000 loan.
"It’s coming due in just about 11 months… and things look to be getting worse, not better," Christopher said.
On Tuesday, he wasn’t aware of any government support programs to offset the losses from Manitoba’s latest restrictions.
"I don’t think any of us are looking for a handout or anything, but if the government’s going to put us in a position where we can’t earn our full income, I think it’s only fair that there’s some sort of program," he said.
Some small businesses’ finances are tied to the owner’s personal account, according to Loren Remillard, president and CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.
"In so many small business cases, if the company goes bankrupt… a personal bankruptcy ensues as a result," he said. "There’s a lot at stake."
The city’s chamber is calling for a provincial program that is fluid with the pandemic. The program could extend if lockdowns do and incorporate sectors as they become affected by restrictions, Remillard said.
"It has to be a living, breathing program that responds to the reality of the public health order and the changing landscape that we’re operating in," he said, adding it wouldn’t be a forever thing, but it’s a necessity as COVID-19 rages.
Ottawa should revisit its financial offerings, Remillard said.
"While we appreciate that there’s still dollars on the table, I think the needs have changed, and the negative impact of COVID is much deeper than what maybe was originally envisioned," he said.
“While we appreciate that there’s still dollars on the table, I think the needs have changed, and the negative impact of COVID is much deeper than what maybe was originally envisioned.” – Loren Remillard, president and CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce
Manitoba Chambers of Commerce is calling for immediate financial support from the province and ramped up enforcement on rule breakers.
"We’re a few days out from the holidays, and people are losing their jobs, people are losing their livelihoods," said NDP Leader Wab Kinew, adding the province needs to provide compensation.
The Progressive Conservatives have failed to equally enforce restrictions across businesses, Jamie Moses, the NDP critic for economic development, added.
"The current provincial government fails to understand — with every new restriction is a new challenge faced by business and workers," Moses said.
“We’re a few days out from the holidays, and people are losing their jobs, people are losing their livelihoods.” – NDP Leader Wab Kinew
Manitoba Liberal leader Dougald Lamont wants the province to buy goods and services from Manitoba businesses.
"The most important thing that businesses need right now is cash," he said, adding the government could buy restaurant gift cards and rent hotel rooms.
Throughout the pandemic, the province has provided over $650 million in various enterprise supports, according to Fielding’s office.
The province offered $79 million through the Manitoba Bridge Grant and $38 million through its Healthy Hire program. The Manitoba Pandemic Sick Leave initiative has $10 million when including its March extension.
- With files from Carol Sanders