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Province launches pandemic recovery program for Northern Ontario small business

$20-million program provides assistance for social distancing improvements, personal safety equipment

With Ontario entering a second wave of COVID-19 infections, Queen's Park is throwing a $20-million lifeline to small and medium-sized business owners across Northern Ontario forced to make adaptations to stay operating.

In a Sept. 28 video conference call, Energy, Northern Development and Mines and Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford unveiled the Northern Ontario Recovery Program designed to reimburse pandemic-impacted businesses with targeted funding for health and safety upgrades geared to the 'new reality.'

"We think we've covered as many bases as we possibly can," said Rickford. "The timing of this is critical."

Companies can apply for assistance for projects such as building renovations, new construction, for customer-employee safety installations, equipment purchases like PPE, marketing for new initiatives, restructuring of business operations incurred as a result of the pandemic.

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The program will be administered through the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. (NOHFC) which will begin accepting applications on Wed. Oct. 1 until Dec. 31.

The list of projects eligible to receive funding are wide ranging.

Some examples provided include new construction to create more space for social distancing measures, patio construction for outdoor retail offerings, leasehold improvements to redesign existing space to increase social distancing, installing point-of-sale technology, HVAC systems; new website, platform, marketing and advertising promotional efforts to showcase business improvements made to safely receive guests, plexiglass installation, alcohol handrub stations, staff PPE, wayfinding signage, security and additional insurance, if required.

In the conference call, Rickford talked about putting small business in the "best position possible" to make enhancements that may reflect the new wave of doing business.

"We believe that this program in its entirety covers as many businesses as possible and reflects what might be a new reality."

According to Heritage Fund CEO John Guerard, the program provides conditional grants - not loans - of up to $25,000 per applicant to cover all of the eligible costs related to a business having to make adaptations to operations to meet public health guidelines.

Those projects or improvements paid for after March 17 are potentially eligible.

"If your business has incurred costs to adapt to the new reality of the pandemic, those costs are potentially eligible," Guerard said.

With advisors in 25 offices across Northern Ontario, Guerard said they expect a high volume of applications through the website by mid-week. But he felt confident application approvals could be quickly turned around within a month.

Based on the "rich" volume of information received from summer consultations with municipal leaders, businesses and other stakeholders, Rickford said that feedback provided an "extraordinary opportunity" to establish this recovery program.

"There's no playbook but we've done our best and, in the spirit of true Northern resiliency, we hope this program will help your business will return to some kind of normal state under the circumstances."

Rickford suggested to the municipal leaders listening in on the call that they might want to consider encourage more outdoor retail shopping next summer by blocking off streets to allow business owners to extend their patios.

The launch of the recovery fund was lead-in to what Rickford described a "new look"  Northern Ontario Heritage Fund.

The full reveal takes place in early 2021 with a new suite of "streamlined" programming that Rickford promised will target new and existing market opportunities, especially for Indigenous business; will address the North's chronic labour shortage, and to stay on top of the economic recovery from the pandemic.

All existing NOHFC programs will begin winding down on Sept. 30 to focus exclusively on the recovery program, Rickford said.

"Our immediate attention will focus on addressing the immediate and urgent impacts of COVID-19 on your business," he said.

Northern MPPs and cabinet ministers Vic Fedeli, Ross Romano and Norm Miller all made laudatory statements congratulating Rickford for this program funding that will stimulate economic recovery across the North, retain jobs, and come to the aid of region's hard-hit tourism industry due to the closure of the U.S. border.