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Inconsistency biggest challenge for businesses during COVID's first wave, says chamber chair

Alberta's newly released first-wave report noted the uptake of provincial supports, such as the relaunch grant, from businesses up until Oct. 12, 2020, was equivalent to $64.1 million, or about 32 per cent of the funds available.
curtis crouse
Curtis Crouse is chair for the St. Albert and District Chamber of Commerce.

Curtis Crouse, chair for the St. Albert and District Chamber of Commerce, said their biggest criticism of the province throughout the first wave of the pandemic was its inconsistent approach toward businesses.

“We wrote a letter to the Alberta government, Jason Kenney, around the consistency of the rules and the ever-changing landscape — that was our biggest concern,” Crouse said.

On Aug. 6, the province released the COVID-19 first-wave report. The report was conducted by KPMG LLP and analyzed the way the province handled the first wave of the pandemic from March 2020 until Oct. 12, 2020.

The report said it will take some time to get a clear picture of how the pandemic impacted businesses across Alberta, but early indicators suggest the numbers of active businesses declined from March to July 2020.

Mike Howes, president of Sparklean DKI, is critical of the way the government handled the pandemic during the first wave.

“I don't think they had any regard for most businesses and to shut down some stores but leave some stores open — leaving liquor stores open — I get what they were trying to do, but if they really wanted to flatten the curve, they needed to be a lot stricter,” said Howes.

Howes was fortunate. His business was deemed essential and did not have to experience the open and closing other businesses in St. Albert faced.

He said the government isn’t doing enough to target businesses that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. He would like to see eligibility for newly opened businesses for supports such as the Small- and Medium-sized Enterprise Relaunch Grant.

“I don't think they're helping the people that it was meant to help. I think there's a lot of businesses that didn't need the help that took it,” Howes said.

Between 2009-2013, Howes said he sat on a federal government advisory committee for small businesses and entrepreneurs. He said current government actions are counterproductive to what they were trying to accomplish at that time.

“[The government was] trying to start new businesses and get entrepreneurs to create new small businesses, and [COVID closures were] just another nail in the coffin by not giving them any support. A lot of those people had saved up for five or 10 or 20 years to start a business, and [when] COVID hit, they lost everything [through] no fault of their own.

“I just don't think all the help that's been given out has gone to the right people,” he said.

The first-wave report noted the uptake of provincial supports, such as the relaunch grant, from businesses up until Oct. 12, 2020, was equivalent to $64.1 million, or about 32 per cent of the funds available.

The program offered a one-time grant of up to $5,000 to businesses that could demonstrate a 50-per-cent reduction in revenue in April or May. The average amount granted to each business that took part was about $3,745.

The report suggested the number of uptakes was low, as the program had been in effect for four months and the threshold for application was a possible deterrent.

In an emailed statement, Minister of Jobs, Economy, and Innovation, Doug Schweitzer, acknowledged the low uptake because of the initial high revenue-reduction threshold.

The province has since lowered the revenue threshold to 30 per cent and, as Schweitzer put it, quadrupled the support for those businesses affected.

“This provided a stronger incentive for businesses to apply and opened the program to more applicants. Since the report was written we’ve seen over 100,000 businesses receive the grant, with funding over $700 million,” he said.

Crouse said he thinks the government did a good job of getting money into people’s hands.

The biggest challenge businesses faced during the pandemic was the changing landscape.

“We didn't have the blueprints in front of us, in a consistent pattern. That was the biggest challenge. The supports were great. But, you know, businesses don't rely on the government as part of our business plan. ... We just need [consistency,]” said Crouse.

Schweitzer said the government, like all jurisdictions around the globe, required quick and decisive action in the early days of COVID-19 to protect the health and safety of Albertans.

“Unfortunately, this often limited our ability to provide longer lead times to enacting [health restrictions]. Alberta has since been the first province to lift most restrictions, something that has led many provinces to follow suit,” he said.

The report said despite the more open economy during the first wave, Alberta’s economy and consumer spending followed a similar trajectory to other provinces.

“Alberta’s softer business restrictions did not stop declines in consumer spending,” stated the report.

The province came into the pandemic after having experienced five years of economic woes.

In April 2020, those woes were further exacerbated as a price war between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and Saudi Arabia caused global oil prices to collapse. On top of this, there was a pandemic-induced drop in global demand for oil because of restrictions on travel, lockdowns, and business shutdowns.

Alberta’s economy was hit the hardest of any other Canadian province.

“As a resource-based and export-heavy economy, Alberta’s economy is extremely integrated with the global economy and therefore highly sensitive to fluctuations in the global markets,” the report stated.

The report also noted that 71 per cent of businesses are directly or indirectly reliant on the oil-and-gas sector.

Crouse acknowledges things were challenging for businesses pre-pandemic and have stayed challenging throughout the pandemic. Recovery will also be challenging.

“[For] those that got through it, are businesses [that] are probably leaner and stronger than they were before. Others are probably limping along and are going to continue to have challenges. Each situation, every industry, every business is going to be very specific,” Crouse said.

Crouse said he thinks St. Albert will see a strong recovery.

“St. Albert business owners are resourceful, and we are very resilient.

“Sometimes you need things like this to force you to make improvements in your business and I think that this really just forced a lot of businesses to take a look at their entire process, from marketing to their sales delivery process, and I think in the long run those that have been able to come out the other side of this, will be better for it.”

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