Alberta is reopening its small and medium enterprise relaunch grant (SMERG) to companies that have suffered financial losses due to health restrictions during the pandemic, and this time more businesses will be eligible for support.
The grant program was introduced last year and offered funding for small- and medium-sized businesses, co-ops and non-profits impacted by COVID-19.
Originally slated to have ended on March 31, Premier Jason Kenney announced SMERG applications would reopen next week. The grants will offer up to $10,000 for businesses that have experienced a 30 per cent reduction in revenue or more.
WATCH BELOW | Premier Jason Kenney and Minister Doug Schweitzer announce additional $10,000 in aid for businesses
The grant will now be available to new businesses that began operating between March 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021. Kenney said "hotels, taxis and ride-shares" will be included as well.
"Every time action is taken to limit viral spread … we put stress on already overburdened entrepreneurs and job creators," Kenney said at a news conference Tuesday morning.
"Thousands of Albertans are facing difficulty and uncertainty, but we know that brighter days are coming."
SMERG expansion to replace business benefit
Businesses will be able to reapply for SMERG even if they previously received the maximum $20,000 available under the grant, Kenney said.
"If a business received the previous payments [from SMERG], they can now receive as much as $30,000 all together in support from this one program," he said.
The expansion of SMERG will also replace the government's enhanced COVID-19 business benefit, which was intended to help businesses through the process of reopening as restrictions lifted.
"We've had to increase stringency of public health measures to protect lives and our healthcare system, and so, we're back into a different context where there are more businesses affected," Kenney said.
'We've been hurt too long'
Kenney announced April 6 that the province would return to Step 1 restrictions to try to slow soaring case numbers driven by the spread of highly contagious variants of the coronavirus.
Restaurants, pubs, bars, lounges and cafés are limited to outdoor patio dining, takeout, curbside pickup and delivery.
Patio seating is limited to a maximum of six people per table, and those at the table must be from the same household or two close contacts for people living alone.
John Nicastro, the owner of Higher Ground Café, told CBC News on Tuesday that in spite of previously taking advantage of SMERG, his business is "hanging by a string."
It has adapted to restrictions by creating a takeout-friendly menu, working with delivery apps, and even developing its own for curbside drinks, Nicastro said.
But he said the impact of the closures has been massive, and the lost revenue, incredible. From spoiled inventory to rent, utilities and payroll, even a closed business accrues costs.
"I'm grateful for it but $10,000 — it goes really quick. It's not enough to sustain your business," Nicastro said of the government's announcement.
"When you're down 70 per cent in revenue, $10,000 is gone in 30 days. And if the lockdown goes any further … we've been hurt too long."
Meanwhile, gyms are limited to one-on-one training only, and low-intensity exercise has been banned.
Scott Wildeman, president of the Fitness Industry Council of Canada, said he is happy to see newer businesses now eligible for the grant, and that the extra funds are available.
But the "reality check," he said, is that most businesses in the fitness industry are still losing $15,000 to $30,000 per month in spite of support.
It means the grant will cover a maximum of about 30 to 60 days' worth of financial losses.
"We do appreciate that it is a difficult time for everybody," Wildeman said. "Every dollar helps … but there's going to be disappointment that [gyms are] still in largely the same position. They're still buried under debt. They're still not open."
Additional restrictions possible if situation worsens, Kenney says
The reintroduction of restrictions has led to open defiance among business owners, faith leaders and members of Kenney's own UCP caucus.
Kenney held firm to the decision to implement the measures on Tuesday, and said additional restrictions could be necessary if the situation in Alberta continues to deteriorate — to keep ICUs from reaching capacity.
"My commitment to Albertans is … we will not put our doctors in a position of deciding which patients live or die," Kenney said.
"That to me is an absolute no-go zone, and that's why we keep open the option of additional targeted measures should they be strictly necessary."
On Monday, the province recorded 1,136 new cases, including 679 cases of variant strains. There were 14,849 active COVID-19 cases and 390 Albertans in hospital, including 90 in intensive care.