‘Struggling greatly’: Local businesses calling for more support in face of COVID-19

Few stores remain open in the Prairie Mall out of COVID-19 concerns and social distancing mandates. The occasional curious customer still wanders the halls seeking something open, or to simply explore the nearly vacant complex. John Watson / Daily Herald-Tribune

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As many Grande Prairie businesses close their doors and lose revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic, calls for more government support continue to grow.

The Grande Prairie and District Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Downtown Association have been working throughout the development of the pandemic to assist struggling businesses.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever be completely the same again,” said Larry Gibson, board chair for the Grande Prairie and District Chamber of Commerce.

“Nobody’s gone through this in our generation or possibly even the generation before us. It’s definitely going to have an impact and it’s going to take time for everybody to get back on their feet.”

The Chamber is now helping voice concerns to all levels of government through community planning and advocacy discussions with the Alberta Chamber of Commerce (ACC) and Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

“Our main focus right now has been letting businesses know what programs become available to support them to get through this, and of course, how to access them,” said Gibson.

“(One) of the programs, of course, is the 10-per-cent wage subsidy, which is one that came out and it helps to some degree, but we’re hearing loud and clear that’s not nearly enough and businesses need more direct aid and not so much on the tax deferrals and the tax relief programs that have been announced.”

Current support structures available for businesses include deferred corporate tax balances and instalment payments until Aug. 31, as well as deferring utility bill payments for three months.

Businesses are also able to apply to the provincially owned Alberta Treasury Branches for deferrals on loan payments and access to additional working capital.

“Businesses are saying that’s all well and good but we want to see more direct aid—don’t want to just see it, they need it,” said Gibson.

“During these uncertain times, they’re needing a lot more than wage subsidies to keep their people employed and their doors open.”

Wendy Bosch, executive director of the Downtown Association, emphasized the fluidity of information made available both by the provincial and federal governments, noting the association has been working to relay information and communicate with officials.

“This pandemic has drastically changed the face of our city centre,” she said.

“Our small and local businesses are struggling greatly. They’ve really stepped up to doing what needs to be done for social distancing on their part.”

Though the Downtown Association does not yet have any further information to formally release at this time, they are continuing to work with other local authorities to find ways of assisting small and local businesses.

Federal support

In a release distributed Monday, Grande Prairie-Mackenzie MP Chris Warkentin raised concerns about the future of small businesses and workers in the Peace Country and across Canada.

The release called for increasing support for small businesses and workers via:

  • Significantly increasing the wage subsidy to protect workers
  • Refunding all GST remittances to the small businesses that collected them in at least the last six months; and
  • Backstopping banks that extend low interest loans to small businesses.

“I have heard from many businesses in the Peace Country about the catastrophic drop in revenue forcing many to temporarily lay off workers. This will have a devastating impact on thousands of local families if the government doesn’t respond to the crisis developing in most small businesses,” said Warkentin in the release.

“This is the time for Canadians to work together. I am taking inspiration from folks in the Peace Country that are looking out for their neighbours. We will be putting forward solutions that will help workers and small businesses weather this crisis.”

In a Wednesday interview, Warkentin advocated for a much stronger focus on helping small businesses retain their employees and supporting businesses that choose to do so rather than force them into employment insurance ultimatums.

“Many employers across the country have seen up to 90 per cent reduction in their revenues. A 10 per cent support for employees will not be sufficient,” he said.

“So, we’re thinking that if there was a rebalancing, and if they were able to get something more closely to what the government would have to pay out if these people were forced to go on employment insurance, there’s a chance that those people would be retained there.”

According to Warkentin, the Liberal government has yet to release or announce much of the necessary information regarding the application process for employment insurance packages.

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