Getting businesses open is vital, but extra supports will still be needed: Manitoba chambers CEO

Getting businesses open again is the first step towards recovering from the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in Manitoba but there’s a lot more to it than that, says Manitoba Chambers of Commerce president Chuck Davidson.

Davidson spoke to the Thompson Chamber of Commerce’s online meting Jan. 13 about how his organization has helped the province’s business community and what needs to happen to get it back on its feet when code red public health restrictions are eased, which Davidson hopes will be soon.

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“My hope is that within the next five days we should have a clear understanding of what the next phase looks like, what code red is going to move from, if we can continue to see those case counts reducing. My hope is that that’s going to happen in the next week-and-a-half to two weeks.”

Businesses, particularly small ones, have borne the brunt of public health efforts to control the spread and effects of the virus, Davdson said, despite little evidence that COVID-19 was being transmitted within them.

“Health care trumps the economy right now unfortunately,” he said. “No one has been able to show me any evidence that COVID cases were as a result of business.”

Manitoba Chambers of Commerce lobbying helped convince the federal government to raise the amount of wages covered under the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) from 10 per cent to 75 per cent, said Davidson, which has been the difference between staying afloat or sinking for many business owners.

“The CEWS program has been a lifeline for many businesses that have been challenged through this as revenues have not been there,” he said. “We’re getting close to almost 10 weeks that a number of businesses had to close their doors. Think about how many businesses could operate on zero revenues for a 10-week timeframe and still be operational. It’s not sustainable.”

The Manitoba chamber was also instrumental in getting the provincial government to offer $5,000 bridge grants to help small business owners get by.

When businesses were forced to close in the fall, the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce tried to convince the government to level the playing field between small businesses and big retailers like Walmart who were being allowed to continue selling non-essential items. It did, but not in the way that Davidson would have preferred.

“The level playing field I wanted to see was let small businesses open,” he said. ”The level playing field that the government decided to go with was making sure that Walmart wasn’t able to sell all those products.”

Although the need for government programs to support businesses won’t go away when they are allowed to reopen, chambers of commerce, business owners and customers themselves will also play an important role in ensuring their survival.

“Those local businesses that have had their doors shut now, that are struggling, that are reliant on government subsidies, not every one of them is going to make it unless we can get their doors open,” Davidson said. “If we can’t encourage people within their local communities to support those local businesses that support the local community when times are good, that’s a challenge. If we don’t do that, there are businesses that are not going to get through this.”

Davison says his organization is also pushing the government to help brick-and-mortar businesses that had to reinvent themselves as online shopping destinations to recover some of the money they had to spend to develop their online stores. Moving forward, Davidson says that offering online options will be more important than ever.

“More and more people are expecting to do online business,” he said. “How do we create better digital infrastructure, specifically in rural Manitoba?”

Asked about the business loan moratorium that has been in place at Communities Economic Development Fund ((CEDF) for the past few years, Davidson says the provincial government needs to make a decision on which way to go, especially since northern entrepreneurs don’t have a lot fo financing options.

“There needs to be a resolution to this one way or another,” Davidson said.

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