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Roy Green: COVID-19 exacting excruciating pain on small business owners and workers

Small businesses are boarded up along an empty street in Kensington Market in Toronto amid COVID-19 lockdowns. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

I will not soon forget the on-air call from the 73-year-old Calgary garage owner.  We were speaking with small business operators nationally about survival amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — the survival of their now-under-threat, often multi-decade enterprises.

We’re all familiar with the cliché “living the dream.” Now, while passion burned perhaps even more brightly under duress, the weight of COVID-19 and its ancillary impact was threatening to lock the doors to living those dreams.

Read more: Small businesses that survive coronavirus have difficult recovery ahead, experts say

The garage owner’s call began calmly, almost analytically. He understood the challenge of beating back the microbe identified as the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and had followed the best advice on how to safeguard his clientele, employees and himself.  But the clientele wasn’t coming nearly as often and the garage wasn’t nearly as busy. The garage owner’s voice began to falter and soon he was in tears.

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That evening I received an email from the garage owner. He apologized for crying on air. I called him and we talked.  I got the reason for the tears –the garage was his life. It was to be his son’s (I think). The garage employed people who had become like family to the owner, and now it was on the verge of being no more.

Read more: Roy Green: It’s time Canada’s members of Parliament shared the financial pain

A Hamilton caller who identified herself as Karen began her call in tears. She wasn’t a business owner, but she had recently completed a self-directed career change which involved time and money. Now, thanks in large part due to the pandemic, Karen was out of money and time was not her friend. No jobs were available along her new career path.

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A Toronto woman, Saki, who with her family had invested and purchased ten restaurant franchises told of staring into the abyss of personal ruin. Her first enterprise, standing staffed and ready to accept diners, had opened for a brief period only in summer — not nearly long enough to establish a flow of predictable repeat customers.

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Patio space was not an option and because Saki’s restaurant was defined as a new business she doesn’t qualify for any federal government small business relief programs.

Read more: Roy Green: Canadian politicians need to stop squabbling and work together on COVID-19

This weekend I’ll be speaking with a woman with a record of small business entrepreneurship. After more than 20 years in business, she and her partner decided to change course for their enterprise, performed a $1-million renovation just prior to the arrival of the novel coronavirus and now, defined as a new business, is also ineligible for any government relief programs.

She writes she has “emailed MPs, ministers, etc. Nothing. We will not be able to hold on for much longer.”

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Are these isolated experiences? Hardly. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business estimates one in seven small businesses “are at risk of going under.” CFIB’s mid-range estimate for business closures due to COVID-19 is 158,000 and could reach as many as 218,000.

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As Premier Doug Ford announced a lockdown for Toronto and Peel Region, the CFIB was pointing to imbalance. Small enterprises, florists, lighting stores, bookstores were ordered closed, but Costco and Walmart remained open because among their products for sale were essentials like food.

That the box stores were at liberty to sell books and lighting created a dangerously uneven playing field for the “little guy/gal.”

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How important is the 73-year-old Calgary garage owner and his fellow small business operators to the economic engine of Canada? Eighty-five per cent of new jobs created between 2013 and 2017 were at small business operations nationally.

COVID-19 is a health threat. A pandemic. And so is the pandemic right behind COVID-19.

Roy Green is the host of the Roy Green Show on the Global News Radio network.

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