Saskatchewan businesses continue to struggle amid pandemic pressure

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Saskatchewan businesses continue to struggle amid pandemic pressure
WATCH: As Saskatchewan celebrates small business week, experts say they continue to face an uncertain future. – Oct 22, 2020

As Saskatchewan celebrates small business week, experts say many continue to face a future of uncertainty, especially when it comes to the potential of a second wave of COVID-19 in the province.

In March, when the pandemic forced businesses to close their doors, many stores, like boutique store Mortise & Tenon, had to adapt in order to survive.

“We definitely had that moment of panic where we were like, ‘How are we going to survive this if we do have to close? And then obviously we did,” co-owner Dani Hackel said.

The Regina-based business decided to shift its focus online, rebuilding its website and offering curbside pickup and delivery.

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“We were still very lucky we were able to stay afloat, but in comparison to having our store open, our numbers were definitely down,” Hackel said.

“We were so grateful to everyone who supported us through the closure, because we’ve seen businesses who weren’t able to make it through.”

According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), 80 per cent of Saskatchewan businesses are concerned about a second wave, while 58 per cent do not think they would survive.

“(Businesses) have a long ways to go to get to be at that sustainable stage, which is why it’s so important that we support our local small businesses in every purchase that we make,” said Marilyn Braun-Pollon, CFIB vice-president of western Canada and agri-business.

In Saskatchewan, approximately 99 per cent of businesses in the province are considered small businesses. In 2018, small businesses employed 31 per cent of Saskatchewan’s workers, according to the Small Business Profile 2019 report.

“They employ 150,000 people. They employ your friends, your neighbours, your family, so I think when you look at it, small businesses in every part of this province, in every sector, really play a big role in our economy,” Braun-Pollon said.

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“Business owners are working really hard to keep their businesses safe for their employees, for their staff, for their customers, so I think that’s important, too.”

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Even businesses that were deemed essential, like Busy Bee Cleaners in Regina’s east end, had to adapt, increasing contactless pickup and delivery service.

“Because we were providing disinfection services, we were allowed to stay open as an essential service,” owner Larry Tessier said.

“Our retail business came almost to a complete halt. From March until July, across that period we were down between 65 and 70 per cent.”

Tessier said because of the downturn, he also had to lay off a number of staff.

“We’ve been able to bring back all but four — there simply isn’t enough work,” Tessier said.

He added that without federal programs like the wage subsidy program and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), his business would have faced serious losses.

CFIB statistics currently show that while 83 per cent of Saskatchewan businesses have reopened, only about half are fully staffed and just 32 per cent are making normal sales. Additionally, 13 per cent of businesses still face the possibility of having to close their doors permanently.

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“If we don’t see those sales move and that trend move upward, unfortunately, we will see some of that,” Braun-Pollon said.

According to Statistics Canada, the number of closing businesses in Saskatchewan jumped to 2,185 in April 2020 from 1,131 in April 2019.

Many businesses across the province have taken to social media to announce their closures. The Little Bird Pâtisserie & Café in Saskatoon explained its decision to close in a Facebook post, pointing to the events of this year. In Regina, Go Big Treats made a similar post on Facebook and said COVID-19 is not a hit it’s going to recover from.

Braun-Pollon said for the average business to recover, it’s going to take about a year and a half, while businesses in the restaurant and hospitality industry could take up to eight years to recover.

“There is no economic recovery without small business recovery and it’s never been more important than right now to shop local, to shop small business,” Braun-Pollon said.

“The concern is that many consumers are going to Amazon and that easy click and buy. Last time we checked, Amazon is not supporting your little league, Amazon is not certainly employing your friends and family and they are not paying taxes here.”

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With the provincial election around the corner, Braun-Pollon said a CFIB survey shows that 67 per cent of its members support tax relief to help small businesses recover.

“Small businesses are going to be looking at the (political) parties and they are going to be looking at what is their plan to help their business, but also the economy recover,” Braun-Pollon said.

Additionally, with the holiday season around the corner, many business owners said it’s never been more important than now to shop local.

“I think it’s just super important to make sure that you are supporting local so that places like us and our friends can weather the storm and come out on the other side,” Hackel said.

Both the Saskatchewan Party and the NDP have made promises to small business owners in their platforms.

The Sask Party is promising a three-year reduction to the small business tax rate as part of its plan to support Saskatchewan’s economic recovery.

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Meanwhile, the NDP has promised to work with small businesses and industry representatives on a provincewide “Buy Saskatchewan” campaign. It’s also promised to reinstate startup loans for rural small businesses.

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