With another round of COVID-related health restrictions handicapping or outright closing businesses across the province, entrepreneurs are again pushing for greater support.
Alongside a backslide in the province’s Roadmap to Reopen, the Progressive Conservatives announced the Ontario Business Costs Rebate Program would expand to help affected businesses by covering property tax and energy costs.
“It’s wild to me that they announce these wide-sweeping shutdowns and then say, ‘We’re working on getting you some support,’” Round Two Fitness owner Michelle Munro told Sudbury.com, adding that key details including how to apply and what businesses are eligible have yet to be released.
“Here’s your reduced capacity and lockdown and we’ll get around to your support eventually. My bank doesn’t understand that when I’m trying to pay my mortgage.”
Joining gym and fitness centres across the province, Round Two Fitness was slated to close on Wednesday as part of a list of closures and capacity limits taking effect until at least Jan. 26.
Among the more notable changes to affect businesses is the cessation of indoor dining and a 50 per cent capacity limit in retail settings.
More support is needed “as soon as possible,” Munro said, pointing to the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program to help cover the cost of renting empty buildings as being a program worth extending. The program expired on Oct. 23.
Apex Warrior owner Dennis Legault credits rent assistance, Canada Emergency Response Benefit and Canada Emergency Business Account loans, and the Ontario Small Business Support Grant with floating his business during these troubling times.
“Without those grants, we basically wouldn't be here,” he said. “So, it’s huge.”
With these programs now expired, he said the survival of countless businesses will hinge on what the federal and provincial governments bring forward. “More grants would be nice,” he said.
“We just keep getting hit every time, so I’m basically just getting my feet back under me as a business and then they shut us down again and we take a huge hit and I’m starting over again.”
The Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Sudbury Business Improvement Area are joining in the advocacy, with both organizations urging the government to do more to help business owners.
“The government needs to develop a defined plan so that businesses have a clear understanding of what metrics will lead to the tightening and loosening of restrictions,” Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Debbi Nicholson said in a written statement provided to Sudbury.com.
“The Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce continues to call on the province to take steps to mitigate the financial hardship on businesses during these challenging times.”
Downtown Sudbury managing director Kyle Marcus said that he anticipates some “major supports” from the government in the coming days to help ease them through another difficult period of time.
The latest step back toward tightened restrictions has been “pretty discouraging,” he said.
“People are just tired,” he added. “I think it’s been a general consensus over the last little while that everyone seems to be in this together, in that everyone’s in this together in the fight to do what’s right and what’s legislated … but they’re tired.”
It’d help if the province employed greater forethought and paired the latest round of restrictions with a well-defined program to help those affected, Sudbury NDP MPP Jamie West said.
Although the Ontario Business Costs Rebate Program might help, he contends that the highly contagious Omicron variant has been a known problem for a while, offering the government plenty of lead time to formulate a plan.
“We just walked directly into it without any preparation and at the last minute made a decision and everyone was expected to pivot and adjust to it,” he said.
Rather than rebates, West said, business owners require much more immediate help.
“We need direct small business grants to those businesses,” he said. “From Day 1 we’ve been saying you’ve got to put money in their pocket.”
From a federal perspective, Sudbury Liberal MP Viviane Lapointe said her government took a few steps to help businesses in anticipation of the Omicron variant’s path of destruction, alongside improving more vaccine and testing capacity. These include the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit and the Local Lockdown Program intended to support businesses and workers impacted by capacity restrictions.
The federal government also extended the Canada Recovery Caregiver Benefit to help those who can’t work half the time due to having to take care of a child under the age of 12 and the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, which helps those who can’t work because they’ve either contracted COVID-19 or are at risk.
“The restrictions are certainly going to be difficult for our businesses, especially our small business here in Sudbury,” Lapointe said, adding that these supports are intended as a temporary means of weathering this latest storm.
“Whether they are expanded, continued or phased after February will very much depend on the numbers and where they’re at.”
As for whatever else the federal or provincial governments roll out, West said it’ll be integral to ensure businesses don’t fall through the cracks, which he has publicly criticized the government for doing in the past.
Local Orangetheory Fitness franchise co-owner Julie Matthews said she can relate to this sentiment, as the business she co-owns with her husband, Shawn, hasn’t qualified for much of anything by way of COVID support.
They started as franchisees in 2019 with a goal of opening in April 2020, but were not able to open until August of that year due to the pandemic sweeping the globe.
With most government support requiring a demonstrated loss in revenue, they didn’t qualify.
“As an advocate, it would be to re-look at the criteria for the businesses that fell through the cracks in these government programs,” Matthews said.
Although appreciative to have an understanding landlord on her side, she said that the government support she’d be most receptive to receiving right now is assistant with rent.
As for longer-term assistance, Munro said it’d be nice to see the government forgive the Canada Emergency Business Account loans they issued earlier in the pandemic.
As it stands, the loans of up to $60,000 will result in loan forgiveness of up to 33 per cent in the event the balance is paid by the end of the year.
“There’s been ongoing capacity reductions and lockdowns that I can’t imagine any of us will be able to pay it back,” she said. “Every day I hope they'll forgive this loan.”
“It’s tough,” Legault said of the $60,000 loan he took out. “At this point, I’ll have a hard time putting that money back.”
Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.