Pandemic roadblocks stalling business recovery

·3 min read

Even before new COVID-19 restrictions are announced by the province, Manitoba’s business recovery is already stalling.

Data released Wednesday by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business suggest, while Manitoba has fared better than the national average and some other provinces, only 36 per cent of small- and medium-sized businesses are now making normal sales.

On top of that, 49 per cent of businesses across the province are fully staffed and 69 per cent are fully open, as of mid-April.

While those figures are a few percentage points higher than March, commerce stakeholders and advocates worry numbers will further stall and could even begin diminishing as a result of yet-to-be-announced pandemic protocols.

“Of course, any new restrictions will be completely detrimental for businesses,” said Jonathan Alward, Manitoba director for CFIB. “Let’s be clear though, so many of them are already under restrictions that are affecting everything — it’s why these numbers look the way they do.”

So far, the province has remained silent about exactly what kind of restrictions businesses can expect, despite hinting at them earlier this week. Manitoba’s top doctor warned Monday that outdoor mask requirements and smaller gathering sizes could be on the way to curb the spread of the highly infectious B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant.

Across the country, the third wave of the pandemic has been straining hospitals and causing increased restrictions in most provinces outside the Atlantic region. Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia have borne the brunt of those lockdowns, closures and other pandemic-related measures — which Manitoba has narrowly escaped because of lower case counts.

Alward said it’s distressing that despite fewer restrictions in Manitoba, businesses aren’t doing much better than other provinces.

“For a lot of people, before this new rise in cases, it’s been seemingly much more normal than the past year,” he said. “But even if it feels that way for someone who’s not a business owner, things aren’t looking as well for our local economy as it needs to be at this point... particularly when you consider how it’s been since January that Manitobans were allowed to somewhat ease restrictions.”

According to CFIB’s national estimates, 56 per cent of small businesses are fully open in Canada (down from 62 per cent in March); 40 per cent are fully staffed (down from 44 per cent) and only 29 per cent are making normal sales (down from 31 per cent).

“But when you compare Quebec’s or Saskatchewan’s numbers to Manitoba’s, for example, and keep their restrictions in mind, it’s startling to see the little difference in business recovery,” said Alward, citing Quebec’s 32 per cent of fully open businesses and Saskatchewan’s 34 per cent, compared to Manitoba at 36 per cent.

“There’s a clear reminder here about trending in the wrong direction, which the (Manitoba) government should note when making decisions about further restrictions.”

John Graham, the Prairie region director for the Retail Council of Canada, said much of this stalled business recovery can be attributed to a back and forth with pandemic measures in Manitoba.

“These numbers aren’t surprising to me at all,” he said. “I mean, small retailers and any business that could make a profit during peak seasons weren’t able to. We also lost many of them as a result of that trouble in making any profits during, say, Christmas.”

Lacking consumer confidence and differing provincial protocols towards businesses have also played a part in creating roadblocks, said Graham. “But above all,” he added, “the Manitoba government needs to step up.”

“At the end of the day, vaccinations need to be accelerated with greater urgency — that’s the key to resolving all of this, instead of closing things down once again, causing further impediments to any success with recovery that we’ve had.”

Temur Durrani, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press