Lockdown comes with lifeline

·5 min read

It’s a “terrifying sense of déjà vu” for struggling businesses, as the province mandates an onslaught of sweeping pandemic restrictions and widespread shutdowns — blanketing all of Manitoba under Code Red limitations.

Announcing a ban on social gatherings of any kind starting Thursday, the province is ordering all barber shops, salons, movie theatres, sports facilities, gyms, religious centres and dining areas in restaurants or bars to shut down; non-essential retail stores are asked to shift gears towards curbside pickup or delivery, with no operations in-store; casinos and VLTs to close completely; and only grocery stores, pharmacies or liquor stores are allowed to host people at quarter capacity.

The “short, sharp set” of measures will be in place for as long as four weeks, said chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin at a Tuesday news conference along with the premier, calling it a “circuit breaker” to curb the spread of COVID-19 — which has killed 109 people and infected more than 2,000 others in the province just last week.

“We have taken steps in individual regions, but it’s time to take a more drastic approach for this deadly virus,” said Roussin. “I cannot stress enough to all Manitobans — now is the time to stay home and reduce your close contacts.”

But unlike the shutdowns earlier this year, Premier Brian Pallister said businesses will likely be “more than prepared to handle things,” because of the new provincial assistance coming their way, reversing the course of what he previously touted were the “most generous” programs across Canada.

“I’m feeling good about these restrictions because I know Manitobans will get behind these,” Pallister told reporters. “I believe in Manitobans and I believe that they can beat COVID... We need everyone on the team, and if you don’t want to be on the team, be prepared to pay for it.”

The changes in support include:

• A new, one-time sum of $5,000 called the Manitoba Bridge Grant — available to small- and medium-size businesses directly affected by mandated restrictions; a funding portal for which will be online Monday, a provincial spokesperson said.

• Converting the existing $6,000 Manitoba Gap Protection Program from a loan into a grant, and relaxing the eligibility rules so people who have also accessed federal grants or loans can access provincial assistance as well.

• Providing immediate, early cash advances of $1,500 per worker hired or rehired at businesses that have already applied for the Back to Work in Manitoba program; under which the province expects approximately $15 million will be handed out within the next two weeks.

For business stakeholders and commerce network leaders, these changes are “more than welcome.”

“We were very vocal about issues in the assistance programs before,” said Loren Remillard, CEO and president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. “But the past is in the past when it comes to something like this — we’re definitely more than appreciative of the government stepping up to the plate on this.”

“Nothing can ever truly be enough for a time of crisis,” said Jonathan Alward, Prairies director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. “The fact is, however, you have to give credit where credit is due — you can really see the province stepping up to the plate.”

Within moments of Tuesday’s announcement, people across Winnipeg — the capital city where certain code red restrictions have already been in place for the last week — began flocking to large grocers, lining outside to “panic-buy” and stock on household items.

At the Waltz On In barbershop on Sherbrook Street, it was a similar rush of customers.

“But it wasn’t exactly happy news for us,” owner Walter Spooner told the Free Press.

Spooner learned of the shutdown from his customers walking in.

“I just wish we had more time to be better prepared, man — it’s really heartbreaking,” he added. “We really hope the grants can come through for us, but not sure if it’ll be enough.”

“It’s actually sad and funny because we literally were at work while this happened,” said Jasmine Moran, one of the barbers at the Waltz On In. “When I go home tonight, I’m going to have to start figuring out how to afford paying my bills and making my rent.

“And who knows if I’ll actually be able to get any of the federal funding.”

At JC’s Tacos and More on Henderson Highway, owner Marvin Dubon said he’s not sure why — despite the thousands of dollars he’s invested in plexiglass barriers, masks and sanitization stations — the province is introducing such measures at indoor dining areas.

“I just cry when I look at our debt loads,” he said. “This is a drop in a bucket.”

Manitoba’s political opposition critics say that’s why the province can still do more for businesses.

“The business owners we’re talking to are telling us that five grand is only is about a quarter of the fixed costs businesses face every month,” said NDP Leader Wab Kinew.

“This is a weak effort to help on the business front as so many small businesses are beginning to descend into a world of hurt,” said Kinew. “We’ve seen what happens when you respond to a pandemic on the cheap. Now my fear is we’re about to see what happens when you respond to a lockdown-induced recession on the cheap, as well.”

Retail giants like Amazon and Walmart will be fine, he said. “What about the retailer in Osborne Village? The toy store in the Exchange? We need to help them,” said Kinew.

“Right now, this government is going to drive thousands of people and businesses into bankruptcy because of their unwillingness to act,” Manitoba Liberal leader Dougald Lamont said.

A provincial spokesperson countered by stating, “The premier has always said that we would offer the right program at the right time — and today noted the province is able to shift $100 million from other programs that have run their course as new needs emerge based on the latest restrictions and challenges created by the second wave of this pandemic.”

— with files from Carol Sanders

Temur Durrani, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press