Ontario unveiled personal protective equipment grants for small-business owners and said it planned to make takeout alcohol permanent for restaurants and bars, as the business community continued to press the province for more supports amid rising COVID-19 cases.
The province’s tourism industry, facing deep revenue losses and massive layoffs, also called for urgent government support to help the hospitality sector make it through to next January.
Ontario is facing pressure from Toronto’s top doctor to shut down indoor dining in bars and restaurants and halt group fitness classes and indoor sports temporarily to quell the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Premier Doug Ford on Wednesday hinted that more measures for businesses would be announced in the coming days, while federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland has been speaking with her provincial counterparts about additional programs.
But Mr. Ford again balked at Toronto’s call for temporary closings. He said data provided by the city showing that 44 per cent of community outbreaks, stemming from about 20 restaurants, bars and entertainment venues, in late September was not enough to justify widespread shutdowns of more than 7,000 businesses. “There are some bad actors, but we can’t paint them all with a broad brush. We just can’t shut down people’s livelihoods," the Premier said.
Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, said Wednesday she understands the difficulty in making decisions around closings.
“We are seeing significant COVID-19 activity, and we have been trying our very, very best to manage this balance,” she said. “The earlier we intervene, the lesser the impact of COVID-19 on the health of the community, and the shorter the duration of the control measures that are required."
Associations such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business have been asking for targeted supports if the province returns to shutdowns in some jurisdictions. In Montreal and Quebec City, for example, a four-week shutdown of public drinking and dining this month was met with a promise that Quebec would cover up 80 per cent of establishments' fixed costs, up to $15,000.
Prabmeet Sarkaria, Ontario’s Associate Minister of Small Business, announced the new PPE grants and efforts to make alcohol takeout and delivery permanent with food orders in the province.
Although the alcohol measures were enacted as temporary regulations early in the pandemic, “We’re working toward making them permanent,” Mr. Sarkaria said in an interview.
Retail, food, accommodation and other service-related small businesses with two to nine employees will be eligible for one-time grants of up to $1,000 to cover PPE costs. Mr. Sarkaria said the province had earmarked $60-million for the new program, which is part of legislation introduced on Wednesday.
The grant will cover costs of equipment including acrylic glass, gloves and face coverings. The province said it will begin accepting applications later this year.
When the pandemic first hit, cashiers at Riverside Market in Toronto were worried about their safety at the register. Managers searched all over for solutions, but the best they could find was a company that would install a thin plastic sheet.
Manager and buyer Thien Pham had his eye on proper Plexiglas barriers with safe doors to move goods through, but they’re costly for a small business. “If we qualify for a grant, that’s the first thing we would get,” he said.
The $1,000 grant limit, however, does not reflect the costs that some small businesses have incurred. Chris Hammell says he spent about $13,000 on PPE during the first pandemic shutdown to be ready to reopen his two Town Barber shops in Toronto.
“It’s better than nothing, because honestly I would do just about anything for $1,000 at this time,” Mr. Hammell said. He admits he overpurchased some supplies to ensure the safety of his employees and customers, but said there should be more funding available “on all fronts” for businesses. “Every business is different.”
Ryan Mallough, the CFIB’s director of provincial affairs for Ontario, said he’s pleased to see the government’s new measures for takeout alcohol and PPE, but more can be done.
“It certainly shouldn’t be viewed as the only thing, and if it is the only thing, that’s going to be problematic,” he said.
Ontario also said it planned to eventually recoup the taxes it had deferred during the pandemic, which Mr. Mallough said would hit hard because “quite frankly, most of them can’t afford it.” In Ontario, he said only 28 per cent of businesses are back to normal revenue.
Mr. Mallough said if Ontario plans to close any businesses again – as Toronto is requesting for bars, indoor dining and gyms – the CFIB expects much more and immediate supports for rent and fixed costs, such as in Quebec, as well as an extension of eviction protections it announced in June. “Governments have had time to prepare for this so there shouldn’t be a delay.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called the government’s plan “delusional” and said it falls far short of what’s needed to help businesses.
“A $1,000 shot in the arm to some small businesses is not going to keep them afloat,” Ms. Horwath told reporters at Queen’s Park.
The Tourism Industry Association of Ontario on Wednesday said the tourism and hospitality sector needs “immediate and urgent government support” to make it through to next year. The association, representing 400,000 employees, said a recent survey of its members showed 90 per cent of businesses reported having steep revenue declines of nearly 70 per cent on average.
Beth Potter, president and chief executive officer of the association, said the province’s announcement about PPE was welcome but “doesn’t go anywhere near far enough” to help the sector, which ranges from hotels, resorts and amusement parks to outdoor festivals. She called for more rent support, for instance, directly in the hands of business owners, not landlords.
“We do need more support from the provincial government to support these businesses through the next few months,” Ms. Potter said. “It is a crisis. … It’s more financially viable to support them now than to have to rebuild an industry that’s fallen apart.”
One of the biggest fixed costs for small businesses is rent. Provincial governments have been working with the federal governments to develop a replacement for the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program, which ended last week after months of criticism because it required landlords to apply.
Although the new program is expected to allow entrepreneurs to apply directly, and to be retroactive to Oct. 1, it is still in the design phase. Mr. Sarkaria said discussions between governments continue.
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