Cambridge Chamber of Commerce

The decision to retighten restrictions in Ontario in hopes of curbing the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant and a rapid increase in hospitalizations has once again left businesses scrambling to make ends meet.

 

But with these latest restrictions, which includes cancelling in-door dining in restaurants and implementing capacity limits in the retail sector until Jan. 27, the lack of solid financial supports to assist businesses get through this latest wave is creating a great deal of frustration.

 

“If the government wants businesses to be compliant and agreeable with restrictions and be part of the solution to end this pandemic, then they are going to have compensate business,” says Cambridge Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Greg Durocher. “The Province has done a very poor job of doing that from the onset of the pandemic.”

 

A similar sentiment is shared by his counterpart at the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.

 

“We are all doing our part. Now, the government needs to do their part,” said Ontario Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Rocco Rossi in a Jan. 3 media release. “What additional steps does the government plan to take over the next 21 days and beyond?”

 

Greg says he welcomes the introduction of an Ontario COVID-19 Small Business Relief Grant announced Jan. 7 that will see eligible small businesses receive $10,000 throughout these current closures as well as electricity-rate relief but believes more supports are needed.

 

“It may be enough for three weeks they are proposing, no question about it,” he says. “But if the closures are going to be in place longer than three weeks, which I hate to even say, they’re going to have to up the ante substantially. Businesses are at their most vulnerable time right now and business owners are at their wit’s end and at the end of their bank accounts.”

 

An application portal for this program is expected to open in the coming weeks and eligible businesses include:

  • Restaurants and bars;
  • Facilities for indoor sports and recreational fitness activities (including fitness centres and gyms);
  • Performing arts and cinemas;
  • Museums, galleries, aquariums, zoos, science centres, landmarks, historic sites, botanical gardens and similar attractions;
  • Meeting or event spaces;
  • Tour and guide services;
  • Conference centres and convention centres;
  • Driving instruction for individuals; and
  • Before- and after- school programs.

Also, those eligible businesses that qualified for the Ontario Small Business Support Grant and are subject to closure under modified Step Two of the Roadmap to Reopen will be pre-screened to verify eligibility and will not need to apply to the new program. 

 

“The government can’t hesitate and must ramp up supports as quickly as possible, and as robust as they possibly can,” says Greg.

 

Greg says the new Ontario Business Costs Rebate Program unveiled before Christmas, which aims to provide eligible businesses with rebate payments equivalent to 50% of the property tax and energy costs they incur due to current capacity limits, doesn’t work for many businesses.

 

“Right now, many businesses that don’t have a separate tax or hydro bill because it’s included in the rent they pay will be ineligible to get that recovery,” he says, adding the mid-January timeline announced by the Province before it activates the portal for businesses to even apply just adds to their growing financial burdens. “The portal was already available after the government initiated a property tax and hydro rebate program a year ago. They should have opened this up right away.”

 

In response to these restrictions, the Ontario Chamber Network sent a letter Jan. 6 to Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy calling for the following:

  • Extend the Small Business Support Grant for a third round targeted towards all businesses whose revenues are directly and/or indirectly impacted by current public health restrictions. Eligibility should include businesses previously eligible for the Ontario Tourism and Travel Small Business Support Grant and businesses losing revenue because of restrictions affecting their clients (e.g. food service suppliers); 
  • Work with the federal government to increase rental subsidies provided under the newly expanded Local Lockdown Program like the enhanced Ontario-Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance Program for businesses directly or indirectly impacted by public health restrictions; 
  • Immediately open the recently announced portal which would allow businesses to access rebates for property taxes and utilities, accompanied by rapid disbursements for eligible business expenses; 
  • Expand access to rapid antigen tests and PCR testing, with priority given to Ontarians unable to work from home, both to limit unnecessary isolation time and allow workers to demonstrate eligibility for paid sick days and other supports; 
  • Work with financial institutions and the federal government to forgive loans for businesses most severely impacted by public health restrictions. 

While the urgency for immediate assistance is needed, Greg says he fears these supports won’t be released quick enough to assist businesses, noting many of whom were starting to realize significant growth in the latter part of the summer and early fall.


“There are so many small businesses that have mounted a great deal of debt and it’s going to be extremely difficult for them to survive,” he says, adding for many it will be like starting from square one. “And we all know the survival rate for small businesses in the first five years is low.”

 

As well, he says businesses that have been around for a decade or two and were in ‘growth mode’ prior to the pandemic are also facing tough times ahead.


“It’s all been taken away from them now and the government just doesn’t seem to be there for them,” says Greg.


While he says while stricter health measures may be needed with this more easily transmissible COVID-19 variant, the line between science and politics has become somewhat blurred.


“There is a divide between science and politics and the two can never come together simply because politicians are trying to please the masses and science is trying to avert the predictable and therein lies the difference,” says Greg. “For the most part, I think government has been trying to take the science data and apply it to political realities and that’s never going to create a good scenario for anybody.”


He says there were measures the Ontario Chamber Network called upon the Province to take prior to the start of the second wave, such as mask mandates requiring surgical-grade and N95 masks being a requirement in public.


“Again, we still don’t have that,” says Greg. “I think there were other measures they should have invoked many months ago that would have probably put us in a better position going into this latest wave. The reality of the situation is the government has become so reactionary they tend to take longer to make decisions.”

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