No treats for businesses

·4 min read

When the clock strikes midnight on Halloween, there won’t be any treats for Manitoba businesses. Instead, there could be a “blood-curdling mix” of layoffs, closure announcements and record debt accumulations — ahead of Monday’s new province-mandated, Code Red pandemic restrictions.

Announcing some 480 new COVID-19 cases Friday, the province introduced a broad set of measures for Winnipeg businesses: dining areas at restaurants and bars, concert halls, recreation facilities and movie theatres ordered shut; grocery stores to operate at half capacity; retail shops to allow only five people; and VLTs or casinos completely closed.

All regions outside of the capital city will have to abide by code orange limitations — putting all of Manitoba under some form of mandatory restrictions.

“It’s going to be the most debilitating effect on our provincial businesses thus far,” says Jonathan Alward, Manitoba director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. “If their debt levels and concerns weren’t already enough, this will be the final nail in the coffin for any business owner.”

The new measures will be in place for at least two weeks, with “the potential for more restrictions to come,” said chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin.

“We are at a turning point,” Roussin added Friday, just as hordes of people began lining up outside large grocers ahead of the announcement — reminiscent of the early days of “pandemic panic buying.”

“If we don’t make a dramatic change, we’re going to see our health-care system significantly strained.”

For restaurants and bar owners, however, that “bleak picture with a lack of timeline on further measures means not only shutting down dining rooms, but also not knowing when they can turn the lights on for their employees who they will inevitably have to be let go,” said Shaun Jeffrey, executive director for the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association.

“It’s inconsiderate and completely disappointing,” he said in an interview. “Frankly, I don’t understand their science. Where are their reasons for shutting down restaurants? Not once have we been consulted.”

At Rae & Jerry’s Steak House on Portage Avenue, owner Steve Hrousalas said he’ll begin the process of laying off at least 60 people starting tomorrow.

“If the province has health experts they’re talking to, then we’re business experts,” said Hrousalas. “I’ve been working here for more than 45 years, and not one person I know has told me there’s been any checking of how we’re conducting business before the government decided to shut us all down.”

In a statement to the Free Press Friday, a spokesperson for Premier Brian Pallister said “the immediate focus must be on communicating and following the new public health orders that will formally come into effect.”

“We have developed some of the most generous support programs in the country,” the statement added, referring to one-time loans such as the $6,000 Manitoba Gap Protection Program currently only offered to those businesses that don’t qualify for federal aid.

“Our government recognizes the significant challenges that businesses are facing,” the spokesperson wrote on behalf of the premier. “But right now, the most important thing we can do to help our small businesses is to reduce our COVID-19 cases.”

But presidents of both the Winnipeg and Manitoba chambers of commerce said they have yet to see any monetary or directed support from the province for businesses affected by the new restrictions.

“When any other province introduced similar measures, they also added some form of strategy for their businesses to cope with that,” said Loren Remillard, CEO for the city’s chamber. “But where was the strategy here? We just don’t see it — neither did we see it when code orange happened.”

Carla Deroy, who runs the Beauty Box in St. James, said her family-owned cosmetic business will have to make some “very tough decisions” this weekend. Her store will have to operate with a quarter capacity — five people on top of employees — starting Monday.

“I just can’t believe this is where we are,” said Deroy, speaking through tears. “I’ve given it my everything throughout the pandemic... I’m just scared to lose it all.”

At the Taste of Sri Lanka, B.M. Kalyai said her restaurant will now solely rely on deliveries. “We’re not sure we even do takeout or curbside pickup because of our space,” she added.

That’s why delivery service SkipTheDishes is providing rebates in response to the upcoming restrictions. Local restaurants are being offered zero per cent commission rates to use their online services and 10 per cent commission rates towards utilizing their own delivery drivers through the Skip app.

“We know how important the restaurant community is to Winnipeg,” said Kevin Edwards, CEO for the company, which has its head office in the city. “With pickup and delivery orders becoming a critical revenue stream for restaurants, Skip stands with our local partners throughout this new wave of restrictions.”

The new measures come into effect at 12:01 a.m. Monday, Nov. 2.

Temur Durrani, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press