Businesses looking for improved supports
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Businesses looking for improved supports

If government supports for businesses don’t improve from those offered in the previous lockdowns, officials can expect to hear from Ian McLean.

The president of the Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce is pretty sure he’ll have plenty to complain about.

“You’ve got the province saying ‘we’re here to help, but, by the way, for all the people that got screwed last time – and there were a great many businesses who got screwed last time – we’re going to do the exact same program we did a year ago.’ That’s absolute insanity,” he said, noting the provincial and federal governments should be making changes based on experience.

“They had the program last time. We know who got it and didn’t deserve it. We know who didn’t get it and did deserve it. We know who got it and deserved it. … If you’re going to use that program, and you’re just going to roll it out the way it was before, that’s an epic failure.”

Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Mike Harris has already had some of those conversations, both with the KW and Cambridge chambers and businesses in the riding.

“That’s definitely on top of a lot of the questions and concerns that are coming in. What I’ve heard is that most businesses, provided that the restrictions that we face right now – this iteration of some businesses being shut down or having restricted capacity – as long as this doesn’t turn into something that’s more than maybe two, three, four weeks, if that’s the case, a lot of what they’re seeing right now will meet their needs,” he said.

“Obviously, there’s some concerns that if this goes longer, what might we be able to do to build on top of what we’re already offering?”

What the province is already offering just now is a $10,000 grant for eligible businesses that are subject to closures under the modified Step Two of the Roadmap to Reopen and is providing additional electricity-rate relief for businesses, as well as workers and families spending more time at home.

The measures were announced last week following Premier Doug Ford’s reintroduction of restrictions.

Eligible small businesses include the likes of restaurants and bars, gyms, event spaces, tour and guide services and tourism locations such as museums and galleries.

The Ontario government is also providing electricity-rate relief to support small businesses, as well as workers and families spending more time at home while the province is in Modified Step Two. For 21 days starting at 12:01 a.m. on January 18, electricity prices will be set 24 hours a day at the current off-peak rate of 8.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is less than half the cost of the current on-peak rate.

Online applications for the previously-announced Ontario Business Costs Rebate Program will open on January 18. This program will provide eligible businesses that are required to close or reduce capacity with rebate payments for up to 100 per cent of the property tax and energy costs they incur while subject to public health measures in response to the Omicron variant.

The supports provide some relief for businesses still allowed to open at reduced capacity, but don’t do enough for those small business owners, McLean argues.

“We need to support those businesses that that didn’t get it last time who deserve it this time. So we’re going to keep pushing on them and pushing them and pushing on that until the program is expanded to include all those businesses who need help. You know what I’m talking about? The dry cleaner who’s open the personal services – they’re not closed, they can go open there doors, but at 25 or 50 per cent of capacity. Even with half their staff off, they can’t make any money. No one can make any money at 50 per cent capacity. Just so we’re clear, there is no business that can make money at 50 per cent capacity,” he said.

Harris said the government has made changes in response to earlier experiences with the business supports.

“I think we did learn some lessons, obviously, on the first intake of this. There were some businesses that probably shouldn’t have qualified that did, and we were able to rectify that, getting those bad actors out of the system and making sure that this is getting into the hands of businesses that, quite frankly, truly need it.”

The province is also improving cash flows for Ontario businesses by providing up to $7.5 billion through a six-month interest- and penalty-free period as of this month for Ontario businesses to make payments for most provincially administered taxes. The government is also calling on the federal government to match provincial tax deferral efforts by allowing small businesses impacted by public health restrictions to defer their HST remittances for a period of six months.

Along with better supports, time is of the essence, says McLean.

“We’ve got  the federal and provincial governments who are saying, ‘don’t worry, we’re there to support you, we’ll get you back in business in some fashion … in February, the end of February.’ But businesses that are trying to stay afloat are already hurting, so this is cold comfort for the businesses that were just starting to reopen and then had …  the best part of their Christmas season, for most retailers and restaurants, kyboshed. And now they’re closed, they’re effectively closed down,” he said.

Harris said he understands the frustration, but notes the measures are needed to ease the strain on the healthcare system, adding he hopes the current restrictions will be short-lived.

“What we’re trying to do here is not get everybody sick at once, not overwhelm our hospital system. We’ve seen, I  think we’re upwards of 3,000 hospitalizations now, more than 400 people in the ICU. These are critical times where we can’t have everybody getting sick at once – I know Waterloo Region alone has about 200 hospital staff that are off right now,” said Harris.

“We’re kind of reaching that peak, and then hopefully coming down over the next little while. And I think really the key indicator here is getting kids back to school on the 17th, and then keeping an eye on what happens there. I know I’ve heard from lots of parents that are eager to get to get their kids back to school.”

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