Businesses want more COVID-19 relief from the provincial government

·3 min read
John Wishart, CEO of the Greater Moncton Chamber of Commerce, says New Brunswick has one of the lowest rates of pandemic support for business in the country. (Submitted by John Wishart - image credit)
John Wishart, CEO of the Greater Moncton Chamber of Commerce, says New Brunswick has one of the lowest rates of pandemic support for business in the country. (Submitted by John Wishart - image credit)

Business groups are hoping the provincial government will announce more COVID-19 relief funding for their members in the upcoming budget.

"There are still some cracks in support," said Moncton Chamber of Commerce CEO John Wishart.

"There are still a large number of businesses who aren't out of the woods."

Start-ups, the tourism and hospitality sectors and airports are among those businesses in greatest need, Wishart said.

The provincial government has "done a few things," to support businesses, such as deferring some taxes and offering a $5000 grant to small businesses.

But the criteria for that program were "quite narrow," he said.

"The province appears to be very close to a balanced budget," said Wishart, "which is quite amazing in the year of a global pandemic."

"There might be a little bit of space there to spend a little bit more cash."

Finance Minister Ernie Steeves is scheduled to table the Higgs government's 2021-2022 budget Tuesday.

Wishart noted that 99 per cent of the pandemic financial support for businesses so far has come from the federal government.

It may have taken "a while" to get programs such as wage and rent subsidies right, he said, "but they eventually did."

Louis Philippe Gauthier, director of provincial affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business says government programs and policies are often out of touch with business needs.
Louis Philippe Gauthier, director of provincial affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business says government programs and policies are often out of touch with business needs. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Louis-Philippe Gauthier agreed that provincial support for New Brunswick businesses has been "anemic."

He's the Canadian Federation of Independent Business's director of provincial affairs for New Brunswick and PEI.

But Gauthier said federal initiatives have also been flawed from a business perspective.

"We've pushed back for changes on every single federal program that was announced so that they would fit more and more businesses. And that goes to show that governments don't necessarily understand the world of small businesses."

On the bright side, he said, governments have demonstrated that they can roll out programs quickly, when they want to.

Gauthier said he has spent the past year trying to "help businesses navigate the constantly moving landscape."

One of the latest examples, he said, is the new provincial requirement that temporary foreign workers quarantine individually in hotel rooms for two weeks before going to work at farming or fishery businesses.

That's "another layer of public health measures beyond what the federal government is requesting," said Gauthier.

His position is that the province therefore has "a responsibility to compensate for the additional costs."

"Or else, at the end of the day, the equation of either staffing or just operating your business just doesn't work anymore."

The average small business in Canada has already taken on an extra $170,000 of debt during the pandemic, said Gauthier.

That's a financial and a mental strain, he said, for owners who have additionally been working a lot of extra hours.

"We know that some businesses are just not going to be with us once the pandemic is over."

Gauthier said larger cities have been harder hit than rural areas during the pandemic because fewer employees are going to work in downtown offices.

"Some businesses have made these changes more or less permanent," said Gauthier.

And many businesses have made the jump to online operations.

Whether people will still be working from home in two or three years is "a big question mark," he said.

"There is still a lot of uncertainty."

Wishart also said he was "very concerned" about the future for downtowns.

"I think a lot of businesses still have questions about the future."

Wishart said he'd like to see plans developed soon for what will be allowed once people get their first and second vaccine shots.

The reopening of borders to non-essential travel would make a big difference, he said.

He's hopeful that will happen this summer.