A single week can change everything, or nothing at all, for businesses surviving during the pandemic.
The Free Press spoke to four Manitoba business owners and workers before new provincial restrictions and federal emergency support extensions were announced this week. How do they feel now?
Public-health restrictions and capacity limits haven’t changed for a gym owner, a hairstylist and a restaurant manager, but things have taken a turn for the worse with the fourth, an independent retailer.
Premier Brian Pallister did not order any businesses to shut down in an announcement of health-order changes this week despite earlier indications the province was considering such measures. The one change imposed was for retailers to limit store capacities to 333 people or 33 per cent, whichever is lower.
Pallister did not announce any support packages for businesses, most of which have now faced some level of COVID-19 restrictions for 13 months. Manitoba businesses are now more than $180,000 in debt, on average, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
That same day, while delivering the federal government’s budget, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland announced an extension of the wage and rent subsidies until the fall.
But even that came with an asterisk, as the plan is to begin replacing some of the aid with a stimulus program for summer hiring.
Aubrey Margolis, who runs Danali, a clothing store in south Winnipeg, believes the provincial government’s "ridiculous restrictions which have no backing with data" are beginning to create uncertainty among customers.
"If they’re only limiting retailers and they’re saying cases are going up, where is the logic?" said Margolis, who had to reduce capacity in the store from 50 to 33 per cent.
"It’s the kind of messaging implied by that, which is a bigger bother for businesses now. I mean, they’re telling us that the COVID cases are coming from within individual gatherings, so why are they then limiting us and making people more worried to go shop at a local retailer? It’s bizarre."
There were just two cars in the parking lot adjacent to the store Wednesday afternoon, a result of "flip-flops from the Manitoba government which is now scaring away our regular clients, as well," Margolis said.
Last week, hairstylist Sabrina Cornwell had fears of losing income if the province shut down personal services again.
"I’m relieved they kept us at limited capacity instead of closing us altogether," said Cornwell, who rents a chair at Hairplay Salon on Ness Avenue.
"But while I don’t want to ever depend on any government support, new funding for businesses they’re restricting... would’ve been nice."
Roula Alevizos, who manages Saddlery on Market in the Exchange District, echoed Cornwell’s concerns. She said she has received federal support, but worries about it ending because the restaurant won’t likely be in a position to begin hiring any time soon.
"The provincial rules make no sense," she said.
"I had a mother and daughter come in the other day, and the daughter brought her boyfriend, who she lives with, for dinner. They all came together, but I had to make them sit (at) separate tables and they yelled across the restaurant to talk. What virus are we really controlling here by doing that?"
Several staff members from nearby offices have arrived together for lunch, sat at separate tables and then left together after telling her they sit near each other and mingle all day at work, Alevizos said.
"If restrictions like this exist, there are many businesses that just won’t survive," said Jonathan Alward, Manitoba director for the CFIB. "The province needs to extend support now... it just absolutely needs to happen. Otherwise more restrictions may come with rising cases and, by then, it’ll be too late."
That’s why Dino Camiré, owner of One Family Fitness and Manitoba’s representative on the Fitness Industry Council, said he won’t be surprised if or when health officials order his doors closed again.
"Sure, they’ve kept us open now, but with this government, we really never know when they’ll close you for whatever reason," he said.
It’s not clear if the province intends to expand assistance programs such as the Manitoba Bridge Grant in light of increased pressure on some sectors of the economy.
"The province has budgeted nearly $2 billion in the 2021-22 fiscal year for the anticipated COVID-19 response and contingency funds for future needs," a provincial government spokeswoman said in a statement Wednesday.
"The government is in regular contact with stakeholders in the business community to discuss emerging needs, and their suggestions have resulted in new programs and additional funding, such as this recently-announced $2 million boost to the Dine-in Restaurant Relief Program."
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press.