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Doug Stephen, owner of the Downlow Chicken Shack in Vancouver on Aug. 9, 2019.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs

I’ve done this countless times. Someone says they are moving to Vancouver and I start to proselytize about the virtues of my neighbourhood, Grandview Woodland: The friendliest neighbourhood on Earth. The general open-mindedness of the people who live here. The amazing shops within a five-minute walk.

They always ask whether it’s close to the beach. Not very, I admit. But who cares? What I love most about East Vancouver, after my neighbours, are my favourite haunts, the small businesses along Commercial Drive and the strip of East Hastings near Nanaimo Street.

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Some like Rio Friendly Meats, Magnet Hardware, Continental Coffee and La Grotta del Formaggio have operated for decades. Others such as Livia, Bench Bakehouse, Downlow Chicken Shack, Manifesto Salon and Tangent Café are newer and run by young proprietors who lease space and operate on thin margins. I’ve lived here long enough that some know me by name and recognize my voice on the phone.

Many of Vancouver’s small businesses have been forced to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those remaining open are operating at half-speed. Small-business owners who lease space are still expected to meet their payments, either with personal savings or by borrowing. (The federal government is offering interest-free loans of up to $40,000 to qualifying small businesses, one-quarter of which may be forgiven.)

It makes no sense for proprietors already carrying debt to take on more, if they know it can’t be repaid, says Michael Wiebe a Vancouver city councillor who owns a small restaurant and pub, now shuttered. “It’s simply pushing the stress down the road.”

What is an ‘essential’ business?

As COVID-19 continues to spread, some provinces have used emergency powers to enforce physical distancing by closing “non-essential" businesses. Companies whose employees work from home, or who use digital storefronts, can continue to do so. But in many provinces, only services deemed essential will have physical locations open. These include:

  • Food and liquor: Grocery and convenience stores, restaurants (take out and delivery only). Pet-food stores included. Liquor stores are open on special hours.
  • Utilities: Energy, water, telecom and garbage-collection services will continue to run.
  • Shelters: Services will continue for homeless people and survivors of domestic violence.
  • Banks: Financial services are on every province’s essential list, but some banks may have reduced or changed hours at branches.
  • Government services: Health care and online higher education will continue, but public schools are closed.
  • Transportation: Public transit, taxis and postal delivery are running, as are transportation sectors needed for supply chains.

Read the full list of essential services in Ontario, Quebec, B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Mr. Wiebe is working with city council and Vancouver business improvement associations to lobby for more assistance now and help small businesses rebound when the pandemic subsides. A rent holiday is what’s needed most, but landlords, many of whom are carrying mortgages themselves, say that is only feasible if the banks ease up on them. There are examples of banks offering relief to individual businesses, but so far, there is no government-mandated directive requiring them to bear any of the financial burden.

So how bad is it out there? Mr. Wiebe, who is former president of the Mount Pleasant Business Improvement Association, did an informal poll of 200 small businesses in Vancouver to find out. Eleven per cent said they probably won’t reopen – more than 50 per cent reported feeling very discouraged about their survival. Mr. Wiebe is solidly in the discouraged camp.

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His rent for Eight ½ Restaurant Lounge, which operates out of a heritage home in Mount Pleasant, was due Wednesday. Mr. Wiebe hasn’t yet sent the cheque and has two weeks to decide whether it makes sense to keep the business going. He laid off his staff when he closed, and even that wasn’t easy. He knows one business owner who spent eight hours on hold with Service Canada trying to obtain records of employment for staff to enable them to collect employment insurance.

To gauge how desperate small-businesses owners are feeling, consider the response to a cross-Canada petition called Save Small Business. One day after it launched, 22,000 businesses and individuals had signed, says Ben Coli, owner of Dageraad Brewing in Burnaby who is working on the campaign. He expects a massive number of businesses to default on April rent. “And that isn’t half of what will come in May.”

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Mr. Coli, whose brewery is still selling beer, says he won’t starve, and he is thankful for the wage subsidies enabling businesses to pay employees 75 per cent of their salaries. “My first anxiety was who’s going to take care of my staff.” But for businesses such as hair salons and pubs that have had to close completely, the future looks grim. Unless everyone, including banks, shoulders some of the losses caused by the pandemic, Mr. Coli predicts many will go under. “I’m worried about how we restart the economy when we come out of this. Is there going to be anyone left?”

A friend in Toronto told me this week he worries how the feel of his city will change if help for the small shops he loves does

n’t come soon. I share his concern. Small businesses are the beating heart of any neighbourhood. If they fail, we all lose.

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