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B.C. small businesses saddled with $17B in coronavirus-related debt: survey

Canadian small business suffers huge loss in pandemic
Canadian small business suffers huge loss in pandemic

British Columbia’s small businesses are sagging under an estimated $17 billion in COVID-19-related debt, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).

The organization says just 60 per cent of business have fully reopened, while about 15 per cent are actively considering winding their businesses down.

They’re the kind of results that wouldn’t surprise Russel Louie with Vancouver’s Spirithouse Thai Product Trade.

Read more: Bleak economic picture expected in B.C.’s first fiscal update since start of COVID-19 pandemic

“All of Main Street here looked basically like a ghost town. The only thing missing was tumbleweed coming down the centre,” he told Global News.

“There wasn’t even anybody walking around … all the restaurants were closed — and a lot of businesses didn’t make it.”

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Louie said Spirithouse’s owner was locked into a lease, and determined to make the best of the situation.

B.C. officials provide economic update following COVID-19 shut down
B.C. officials provide economic update following COVID-19 shut down

They’ve reopened and tried to clear as much space in the store as possible to make customers feel comfortable. Louie wears a mask when shoppers are in store.

“It was touch and go,” he said.

“But it’s been good since we opened the doors two weeks ago, people are happy coming in, shopping.”

Read more: B.C. employment affected by COVID-19 more than any other province: poll

But even with shoppers on the street, stores and restaurants are operating at a limited capacity and seeing lower revenue, said CFIB executive vice-president Laura Jones.

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“Many businesses are telling us they think it’s going to take more than a year to repay COVID-related debt,” she said.

“It’s a big anchor around business owners necks as they’re trying to get back to normal.”

Coronavirus: B.C. finance minister outlines priorities for province’s COVID-19 recovery plan
Coronavirus: B.C. finance minister outlines priorities for province’s COVID-19 recovery plan

Jones said just over a quarter of businesses responding to the survey had hit normal revenue, while just 33 per cent were back to normal staffing.

The average small business is carrying about $120,000 in pandemic debt, with more than a third relying on personal savings or credit cards to stay afloat.

Read more: ‘Buckle up’ warns B.C. Business Council, amid growing economic impact of COVID-19

Back at Spirithouse, Louie says the only way out of the downturn is to focus on the future — and to get creative.

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“You can look at it two ways: you can be really stand-backish and beware, or if you really want to be an optimist you can be a little bit aggressive,” he said.

“There’s so many online services you can sell through … and this has opened eyes. Especially the older people, the people who were isolated and couldn’t get out — they had to use online.”

— With files from Nadia Stewart