Hanging by a thread: Why these businesses want more specialized support to survive COVID-19

·5 min read
A woman puts a red sign with words Closed Due To COVID-19 onto a glass door. (Shutterstock - image credit)
A woman puts a red sign with words Closed Due To COVID-19 onto a glass door. (Shutterstock - image credit)
A woman puts a red sign with words Closed Due To COVID-19 onto a glass door.
A woman puts a red sign with words Closed Due To COVID-19 onto a glass door.

It's been a difficult year for small businesses in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the sudden move back to the lockdown provisions of Alert Level 5 hasn't made things any easier.

For businesses that started during or just before the COVID-19 pandemic, rolling with the punches has been routine. However, the punches have been coming again, and some businesses say they'll need more than light at the end of the tunnel.

Even businesses off the Avalon are still feeling the prolonged pinch, despite the move there back to Alert Level 4.

Robyn Pearce, owner of Intervals Music Studio in St. John's, said the greatest difficulty has been reverting to an entirely online model in an industry so reliant on face-to-face instruction.

"The hardest part is the fact that we really pour our heart and soul into everything that we're doing, and then just to know that purely because the vehicle doesn't work for everybody, the way that we're offering it — it's hard to see that it's just not enough for some people," she said.

There have been other setbacks, too. Just before the lockdown began, her wallet was stolen from her office. Later, her studio was later broken into.

Pearce said that while it's been encouraging to see some benefits to online learning, with some students opening up more in the comfort of their own homes, she said overall it's an exhausting process.

"There's a completely different energy that you have to have when you're in front of a screen versus being in person with the classes," she said.

As a small business owner and operator, Pearce hopes that after the election the government will try to focus on addressing businesses and their individual needs, rather than implementing broad programs.

One area to address, Pearce said, is the high cost of rent.

"I actually discovered a couple of years ago when I made the move to a commercial space that my rent was higher than somebody in California, which was a big shocker," she said.

"The rent incentive program that [government] had was no good for someone like me," said Pearce, who noted that in order to qualify she would have had to have lost 75 per cent of her business outright.

"So I'd love to have more support in that area, where someone can look at my business model and look at what I have and go from there, because a lot of the support I just didn't qualify for."

Changing gears to get by

Mark Murphy, co-owner of the Postmaster's House B&B in downtown St. John's, said while government programs have been designed to help businesses stay afloat, those that began during the pandemic are falling through the cracks.

His business incorporated just before the first local cases began to appear in March 2020.

"We bought the property in February, and coming into the pandemic there was support for mortgage deferral, but having a new mortgage, we weren't eligible for it," he said.

As well, his business wasn't eligible for many of the programs rolled out to provide some pandemic relief.

"All these one-size-fits-all support programs, we weren't eligible for a lot of those either," he said. "So businesses like ours, and like Intervals, are just feeling like we're falling through the cracks."

With the notable downturn of the tourism industry, Murphy pivoted his business from a B&B to include baking, and while he said the community response has been great, it's only barely keeping them afloat.

Murphy wants to see the government take initiative in supporting the province's newest businesses and their specific needs over the kind of support they're currently providing.

"That is not working for the businesses that started right before and during the pandemic," Murphy said. "While I realize it might take more resources in the government, taking a look at each individual business model would help."

Rest of the island down to level 4, bars and restaurants still closed

While businesses continue to struggle across the province, the shift back into level 4 is a welcome change for those beyond the Avalon, according to Sheldon Handcock of the Gander Area Chamber of Commerce.

Last week, the Gander-based organization, which represents 300 businesses in the area, posted a letter to Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, publicly asking for regions outside the Northeast Avalon to be moved into Alert Level 3.

Gander and Area Chamber of Commerce Chair Sheldon Handcock, seen here during a Zoom interview with CBC, says he hopes Dr. Janice Fitzgerald takes a regional approach to reopening businesses.
Gander and Area Chamber of Commerce Chair Sheldon Handcock, seen here during a Zoom interview with CBC, says he hopes Dr. Janice Fitzgerald takes a regional approach to reopening businesses.

While the drop down to level 4 will see the continued closure of bars and restaurants, Handcock said that many seem to be acclimating to the process.

"It has to be public health first, and the economy obviously is second," said Handcock. "Restaurants can still do their takeout orders, and I think that they've gotten quite a bit better from the last lockdown at being able to do curbside orders and that type of thing."

While they're committed to following all directives from public health, for many local businesses, Handcock said, economic disaster is growing closer as funds begin to dwindle.

"We've heard from quite a few businesses that it is pretty close," said Handcock.

"We did have quite a few businesses that had said to us that if this continues on long, we can't keep our doors open."

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