Small businesses urge government help as coronavirus spreads

Canada’s small businesses are growing increasingly concerned about the impacts of the spreading COVID-19 virus and have urged provincial governments to step in and provide some financial relief. (Getty Images)

Canada’s small businesses are increasingly concerned about the effect of the spreading COVID-19 virus and have urged provincial governments to step in and provide financial relief.

In separate letters addressed to each of Canada’s premiers, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) urged provincial governments to consider assisting small businesses that are experiencing economic fallout as a result of the rapid spread of COVID-19.

“Businesses are already feeling the impacts and might face further challenges brought on by potential community spread of the virus across Canada,” the letter said.

“Some business owners are experiencing supply chain interruptions or delays in receiving shipments from China, leading to unfilled orders and dissatisfied customers... Some businesses are seeing a significant loss in foot traffic as the public becomes more fearful of contamination, resulting in stunted revenues.”

CFIB called on the provinces – as well as other levels of government – to consider implementing several initiatives, including providing relief for affected companies similar to what might occur in the event of other natural disasters. CFIB also recommended that the provinces provide relief from penalties and interest for late remittances of taxes and Workplace Safety and Insurance Board payouts, as well as temporarily stop routine audits, a process that “is already stressful enough for small business owners.”

The group urged the government to establish a small business hotline to help those that may have to shut down operations temporarily or permanently and ensure they are transitioned quickly into the EI system.

“The EI system needs to be prepared for a period of heavier unemployment,” the letter said.

Plamen Petkov, vice president of Ontario and business resources with CFIB, said in an interview that a key concern among small business so far has been how to deal with employees who have travelled abroad or may have to miss work as a result of the virus.

“One of the key vulnerabilities for small businesses is actually losing their employees,” Petkov said. “If you have six employees and two cannot make it into work, that’s a third of your workforce and it becomes very difficult to maintain normal business operations.”

Petkov said the most vulnerable businesses are those that interact directly with customers, including those in the retail, restaurant, tourism and hospitality sectors. While the economic impact of the virus outbreak on businesses has so far been minimal, Petkov said that companies need to plan for the worst.

Brian Kropp, group vice president at research and advisory firm Gartner, said companies should have a contingency plan in place in case 25 per cent of staff are unavailable to work because of COVID-19 – a worst-case scenario based on the response during the H1N1 and SARS outbreaks.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday morning that the government is open to the idea of helping firms suffering economic damage from a coronavirus outbreak, but did not provide additional details.

“There will be impacts on Canadian businesses, on entrepreneurs, and we will always look for ways to minimize that impact and perhaps give help where help is needed,” he told a televised news conference in Halifax.

Petkov said CFIB will be sending a similar letter to the federal government this week.

“Governments certainly have a role to play here in terms of instilling more stability and certainty in the economy and, where necessary, to provide help that some small businesses may need,” Petkov said.

With files from Reuters

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