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Rough start to 2021 for local business

Hit with a lockdown that began on Boxing Day and then a more restrictive state of emergency, local businesses have had a rough start to 2021 after facing tough conditions for most of the past year. Current conditions have forced some to close, while others struggle to keep the lights on, say groups that represent businesses in Elmira and St. Jacobs.

Members of both business improvement area (BIA) organizations say the latest restrictions have caused confusion among merchants and customers alike. They worry there will be an even bigger shift to online shopping and big-box stores rather than efforts to shop locally, either via store websites or curbside pickup.

“Over the past year, I would say a lot more of the businesses have enhanced their online presence through social media and creating online stores, or at least figuring out how they can do curbside pickup [if] they don’t have an online store,” said Carrie Briscoe, coordinator of St. Jacobs BIA.

The village was fortunate enough to be permitted to run its Sparkles event, an annual Christmas village that typically sees high traffic levels, before the latest lockdown kicked in.

“[Shopping] ended up being shifted more towards ‘shop local’ for the holidays, which was actually quite amazing, and people [were] offering safe options, as well, even though we weren’t locked down,” she said.

January is usually a slow month for retail operations following the boom time of the holidays.  Some merchants may take a pause or plan for lower volumes anyway, with the stay-at-home order prompting some to remain closed for the time being. 

“It is a challenge, and it’s going to be a challenge for everyone. I think what we’re trying to do is just keep the communication lines open with our businesses and let them know that they can reach out if they need any help, promoting all of those different funding opportunities that the government’s putting out, and encouraging people to apply for them. But, yeah, it’s definitely not a great time for small businesses. Our fear is that there will be closures. At this point, everyone is laying low and hopefully taking advantage of some of the funding opportunities, while they can’t really be open,” said Briscoe. 

In Elmira, BIA chair Jonathan Clay says the organization is looking to be as supportive as possible to its members.

“As always, the BIA is here for our membership as a resource for finding assistance in funding and resources such as PPE, et cetera. At this time though, we have found that almost all businesses have secured whatever funding they can and found suppliers for what they need to operate in a safe manner.” 

The Elmira BIA plans to continue advertising its businesses through social media to inform people at what capacity they are operating. The group has now designated a marketing person on their board to help design posters and ads for print. 

Clay says the BIA hopes to build upon the outdoor patio success that saw Mill Street closed over the  summer and fall, but nothing is currently set in stone. 

The group has been trying to gauge support for ‘shop local’ sentiment, especially in comparison to the previous lockdown.

“In this regard I wish there was better news… let’s just start with that. Unfortunately, several of our businesses have been hard hit and there are some that have been ineligible for the financial assistance that the government is offering. For some, the next available CEBA (Canada Emergency Business Account) portion will be helpful, and others may qualify for the new Ontario Small Business Support Grant,” said Clay, noting there is plenty of confusion among business owners and the public.

“Much of it is very confusing for the customers and the owners of our downtown businesses: determining the varying details of the lockdown, who can be open, who is essential, et cetera. So, pretty difficult to say there is an increase in support from the government. And it’s frustrating that our BIA board can’t do more for the over 170 businesses we have as members. We are looking forward to when this lockdown is over to help them rebuild and try to recoup as much of the losses as possible.”

The hardships extend to businesses across Canada, with an estimated 26,000 businesses having shuttered for good due to the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.

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