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Physiotherapist Lalitha McSorley works on a patient while wearing her personal protective equipment at the Brentwood Physiotherapy Therapy clinic in Calgary, June 5, 2020.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Companies offering masks, face shields and disinfectant flood Kieran McSorley’s inbox each week, promising plenty of stock and quick turnaround on orders. But when the chief operating officer of Brentwood Physiotherapy Clinic in Calgary calls to place an order, he encounters exorbitant prices for items that he used to purchase for much less.

Alberta is in the first phase of its economic relaunch and has released guidelines for businesses and medical service providers that often include the use of masks and other personal protective equipment, which are in short supply in Canada and around the world. Businesses worry that those problems will become even more acute at the end of the month, when the provincial government stops providing PPE, warning that rising costs and stretched supply could cause them to increase their prices or close their doors.

“Every day, I get e-mails and phone calls from businesses that are fairly new contacting us to say that they have masks,” Mr. McSorley said. “I’m always excited because I’ll think that we can get a bunch from them for a decent price, then when I call them I’m shocked by the prices.”

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A recent survey by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business found 52 per cent of businesses said PPE will become a significant expense throughout the pandemic.

When the gear was in short supply after the COVID-19 pandemic was announced in March, the United Conservative Party government attempted to fill the gap by providing masks, hand sanitizer and gloves to businesses. Late last month, the province announced that businesses would need to find private suppliers by the end of June.

As more businesses transition away from the province’s program, Mr. McSorley is concerned that already rising prices and increasing demand could put strain on those struggling to operate amid a devastated economy.

With 10 employees and as many as 30 clients visiting the clinic daily, Brentwood is using between 30 to 50 masks a day. While the cost of PPE amounts to $5 a patient, the clinic is operating at reduced capacity and the additional expense racks up quickly.

Some clinics in the province have been unable to reopen altogether, as either prices are too high or they can’t find enough supply, he said. When Mr. McSorley’s providers post new stock online, PPE sells out within hours. But without it, Brentwood would need to close for the second time since the pandemic started, he said.

“If it ever comes to the point where we can’t get masks, I could go to suppliers who are charging an arm and a leg,” Mr. McSorley said. “If that’s the only way to provide health care to our patients, then I’ll go with those suppliers. But I’d prefer to not use them because buying from them means you’re giving them the thumbs up, [to] continue doing this.”

The province is considering speeding up its economic relaunch program amid a decrease in new COVID-19 infections. Restaurants, retailers, hair salons and some medical providers were permitted to open last month, while an announcement on the second phase, which will include movie theatres and a broader list of medical and personal care services, is expected this week.

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Premier Jason Kenney announced on Friday that the province will offer one-time relaunch payments to help small businesses pay for reopening costs, rent, wages, inventory and protective measures. The program provides businesses with fewer than 500 employees up to 15 per cent of monthly sales revenue, to a maximum of $5,000.

The government made the move as salons, restaurants, hotels and other businesses that were forced to shut down struggle to find and afford the PPE they need to serve customers. Greg Kureluk, co-founder of Edmonton-based Soho Master Hair Stylists, said that he has spent several thousand dollars on surgical masks, face shields, plexiglass barriers and disposable aprons to protect employees and clients in an environment where blow dryers and aerosol hair products whip particles around their small salon. It’s a hefty expense for a small business operating at 50-per-cent capacity to accommodate physical-distancing requirement.

“For a little salon, the cost has been astronomical,” he said. “The cost of PPE has increased dramatically since we started acquiring it in early April. The cost of face masks has more than doubled since COVID forced us to start buying them.”

While salons are not mandated to close if they cannot purchase PPE because of short supply, the risk of operating without protection for employees and clients is too high to stay open, according to the Beauty Council of Western Canada, which represents cosmetology professionals in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

“It’s too dangerous and there’s an opportunity to operate in a reckless manner that could land them in trouble,” said Greg Robins, executive director of the Beauty Council. “This is putting a lot of financial pressure on these establishments.”

To recoup the cost, the Beauty Council is encouraging salons and professionals in the industry to either raise service prices or implement a COVID-19 surcharge. If salons choose not to pass the expense on to customers, they risk slowly going out of business, he said.

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But Mr. Robins said the solution is not for the province to continue providing PPE to businesses. Instead, the government could consider supporting PPE makers, similar to the Ontario government’s announcement on June 2 to invest $2.8-million in local personal protective equipment makers in an attempt to expand production capacity.

“I applaud the Alberta government for providing PPEs to businesses in the first place, and it’s been a helpful kick-start to the industry,” he said. “But anybody in the PPE business could be concerned that this is a short-term situation, so they might not want to put money into retooling. An incentive would help reduce barriers for suppliers to get onboard.”

If a business is unable to procure PPE, owners should explore other measures of protection before considering closing, including extra ventilation, plexiglass barriers and adjusting work schedules, according to Alberta Health.

“Employers are legally required to implement practices that minimize the risk of transmission of COVID-19 infection in their business and to comply with the Alberta Health guideline to the extent possible for their business model,” Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said in an e-mail. “There are many control measures available for hazards; rarely is PPE the only control available.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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