Queen's Park. BENSON KUA

Small businesses receive some welcome relief

Pelham Town Councillor Wayne Olson regularly talks to a lot of local people running small businesses, and recent conversations have left him distraught.

“It was kind of alarming to hear the state of affairs from their perspective,” said the Ward 1 representative. “People are scrambling…starting to make decisions about whether they can continue to operate.”

These are not necessarily the people right on main street, stressed Olson. They are the organic farmers, the event caterers, the restauranteurs…and they are stretched to their financial limits.

“This particular COVID shutdown comes at a really bad time for them. Some are using their personal savings to stay afloat, and they can’t continue to do that for much longer. As for many new start-up businesses, the pandemic will set these young entrepreneurs back several years.”

Olson was encouraged by a recent Ontario government announcement, offering various grants to small business owners that commenced on January 15.

“This intervention has been well received,” he said. “In fact, when the applications came online, the volume of traffic was so great it crashed the site. The Treasury Minister has announced that they’ve already had 40,000 applications, which is amazing.” Olson sent out notifications of the grant programs to 14 local business owners with whom he had met.

“It’s important to remind people that the money’s there on the table, and it would be crazy not to apply for it.”

The Ontario government’s Small Business Support Grant Program provides up to $20,000 to small businesses (with fewer than 100 employees) restricted by the province-wide lockdown. The funding can be applied to a variety of business costs (including wages, property taxes, utilities, and rent) and should be accessible within ten days of receipt of a completed application.

Eligibility requirements for businesses include significant restriction of operations because of the province-wide shutdown that began on December 26, and at least a 20 percent decline in revenue in April 2020 compared to April 2019. Businesses that opened after April 2019 will still be able to receive the grant, provided they meet the other eligibility criteria.

Big box stores (which drew criticism for being allowed to remain open for in-person shopping during the pandemic), grocery stores, pharmacies, and liquor stores are not eligible.

Another program, the Main Street Relief Grant: PPE Support, assists small businesses with one-time, $1000 grants to cover the unexpected costs of personal protective equipment. Eligible businesses include those with two to nine employees in the retail and service industries.

The WSIB Employer Relief Package provides $1.9 billion in relief for employers to reduce the financial strain on business brought on by COVID-19. The measure, which will run through the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), will see premium payments deferred for six months for all businesses in the province.

Businesses struggling to pay their property tax and energy bills as a result of COVID-19 may also be eligible for rebates through the COVID-19 Energy Assistance Program for Small Business Program.

Online applications are available for relief programs online at Ontario.ca. Questions can be directed to Transfer Payment Ontario Client Care at 1-855-216-3090.

The latest assistance for Niagara tourism-dependent operators is the Tourism Adaption and Recovery Fund, which makes non-repayable grants of up to $20,000 available for renovations and retrofits, PPE equipment, and support for technology and digitization. Project costs must be incurred between June 1, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2021. Priority will be given to projects that retain and create jobs, have a high jobs-to-dollars invested ratio, and increase the competitiveness and sustainability of the business post-pandemic. Details are available online at niagaracanada.com/covid-19-2/tourismfund.

Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff told The Voice that the local tourism sector has especially suffered in the context of COVID-19, as the region’s unemployment rate grew from 6.7 percent in November to 8.7 percent in January. Accommodations and food services —key sectors in the tourism industry—lost about 2,200 jobs between November and mid-December.

“Tourism industry representatives in Niagara have shared with our office that it could take three years after the end of the pandemic to recover,” he said.

Dolores Fabiano, Executive Director of the Welland/Pelham Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the government assistance. She asserted that small businesses are the backbone of local economies, and now is the time to do everything possible to help them survive. Fabiano noted that the hospitality sector (especially restaurants), small specialty retail shops, and personal service companies such as hair salons, spas, and gyms, have been hit hard.

“We hope that access to various grant programs provide these businesses with the resources they need to get through the lockdown. The key is for all of us to support these local businesses, throughout the lockdown and beyond, as best we can.”

MPP for Niagara Centre Jeff Burch downplayed the aforementioned measures, telling The Voice that it was, “once again, a case of too little, too late from the Ford government.” The NDP stalwart is calling for a ban on all commercial evictions, a 75 percent commercial rent subsidy, sick days for all, a fund to help businesses with safe-reopening costs or remote-work set-up costs, more non-profit and public childcare spaces for working parents, and an end to insurance gouging and denials.

“This lockdown means more people are facing the collapse of their business, the loss of their job, or financial hardship. We’ve heard from many businesses and cultural halls that, without much-needed support, they face imminent closures,” said Burch.