Spring break is usually a great time to visit the town of Wasagaming in Riding Mountain National Park.
The 15 rooms at the Lakehouse would be full and so would another 33 rooms at the Arrowhead. Karly McRae, who co-owns the two hotels with her husband Jason Potter and their partners, Mike and Julie Collyer, can’t say that in 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic is having a crippling effect on their small business empire, which also includes Danceland, a Wasagaming institution. McRae and her partners shuttered their buildings on March 19, six days before Parks Canada officially closed the park to all traffic.
With no guests, McRae and her partners were forced to lay off their entire winter staff of 22. In summer, their workforce usually increases to more than 90.
"It’s been brutal to have to lay off that many people that we were close with and work with every day and care about a lot," said McRae via phone Saturday afternoon. "That’s been tough for sure... It’s normally a really busy time. We’re losing a ton of money, right now, as many other people are now."
McRae isn’t alone.
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In a survey conducted between March 20 and 25 by the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, 80 per cent of the province’s small- to medium-sized companies (those up to 50 employees) were reporting significant financial impact. A further three out of 10 small companies (those with between one and 10 employees) feel the pandemic could put them out of business.
"The hospitality businesses are being hit so hard just simply because it’s impossible to operate safely with the physical distancing recommendations that are in place right now," said McRae. "Every business in Wasagaming would fall into that category because, in addition to how hard the entire tourism industry is being hit, we’re also controlled in a sense by what Parks Canada ends up doing.
"So, when we have a complete closure of Parks Canada sites, we can’t even (do) like other restaurants — offer take-out service and take-home meals."
Was chamber president and CEO Chuck Davidson surprised by the poll results?
"No, not shocked at all because I’ve been having these discussions with businesses for the past week about really that uncertainty that’s out there," said Davidson. "And talking to so many small businesses that are fearful in terms of how they get through this. It is a huge challenge. It’s not just a Winnipeg thing, this is throughout the province and that’s what the survey results showed."
Recently unveiled federal subsidies should help, Davidson added. Breaks for businesses from provincial and municipal governments could be next.
"Announcements like what happened yesterday with the federal government in regards to looking at a federal wage subsidy of almost 75 per cent will have a significant impact on a lot of these small business owners," he said. "Part of the challenge is they have zero revenues coming in. There’s no way you can pay your employees and so a lot of them have been forced to lay off their employees. So the reality with this subsidy and help them potentially do is to weather the storm."
McRae is hopeful but has concerns. Parks Canada has suggested a May 1 reopening date but there are no guarantees.
"If we start accessing the 75 per cent subsidy, well 75 per cent of zero payroll is zero — it doesn’t do much to help us," said McRae. "What I’m hoping they announce we can start to access it as of May 1 or June 1 and that would have a real benefit if we’re able to open up at that time."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
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