Alberta small business owners apprehensive as possible reopening date looms

Small business owners in Alberta have a litany of questions and concerns as the provincial government is poised to allow some stores and services to re-open Thursday.

Cash flow, confusing health guidelines, staff fears all obstacles to opening doors to customers

Katy Ingraham, co-owner of Cartago restaurant in Forest Heights, said she doesn't feel comfortable re-opening her restaurant on Thursday, should the government ease public health restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Small business owners in Alberta have a litany of questions and concerns as the provincial government is poised to allow some stores and services to reopen Thursday.

While they're anxious to see clients, earn revenue and restore any sense of normalcy, some owners are hesitant or unprepared to swing open their doors immediately.

There are cash flow problems, employees scared to work and even a fear of stigma for seeming too cavalier about the spread of the coronavirus.

"I think there's a lot of unease of being the first to open in what could potentially create a second wave or unflatten that curve," said Katy Ingraham, owner of the Cartago neighbourhood pub in Forest Heights. "There's a lot of trepidation, but there's also some cautious optimism for sure."

On April 30, Premier Jason Kenney said Alberta's first stage of lifting public health restrictions would likely begin May 14, barring a surge in hospitalizations for COVID-19.

In that first stage, retail stores, hair salons, museums, daycares and day camps would be allowed to open, with restrictions, and people could dine in restaurants and cafes at up to 50 per cent capacity.

Government guidelines on how to run these operations during a pandemic went online Monday. Some owners say the guidance is too vague, untenable and arrived too late.

"My very strong impression of what happened here is that the UCP [United Conservative Party] cabinet set a date for reopening and then the public service was forced to scramble after the fact to put together guidelines," NDP Leader Rachel Notley said at a Tuesday news conference in Edmonton.

Money trouble

Notley said small businesses need an immediate infusion of cash from the provincial government to help them survive. Most owners made little to no money in the last two months, and must now spend more reopening with extra cleaning, buying protective equipment for staff and potentially modifying their stores to keep people apart.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley calls on the UCP government to provide commercial rent help, startup grants and lower utility costs to small businesses attempting to re-open as public health restrictions for COVID-19 begin to ease in Alberta. (Dave Bajer/CBC News)

Those businesses are already smarting from commercial rent payments, utilities and insurance costs, she said.

A Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) survey, done from May 8 to 11, found two-thirds of Alberta business owners thought governments should do more to help businesses with commercial rent.

More than 80 per cent said government programs helping businesses through the pandemic should be extended until the end of summer. The majority also want property taxes frozen and utility costs and fees reduced by municipal governments.

Startup grants would be helpful, as would an extension of the federal government's wage subsidy program, said Annie Dormuth, the CFIB's director of provincial affairs for Alberta.

Although the federal government offered a commercial rent relief program, some landlords weren't interested, said Janis Isaman, who owns a small Calgary fitness studio called My Body Couture.

She said Tuesday she was also required to keep paying for liability insurance for her studio — even though no one is allowed inside. Her business has received no emergency funding from any level of government. She'll still be on the hook down the road for any deferred payments.

Groove Stone boutique in Southgate Centre won't be ready to open again Thursday, owner Stephanie Adams said. (Submitted by Stephanie Adams)

'My business model is completely changed'

Stephanie Adams, who owns the Groove Stone boutique in Southgate Centre, said she was stunned to hear last month retail stores could open within a couple of weeks.

She's grappling with the logistical hurdles of reopening the store while respecting public health limitations. Many of the staff she laid off don't want to come back to work — they're scared, she said.

She won't be ready to roll open the gate to customers on Thursday. When she is, she thinks customers will have to come into the small store one at a time.

Her staff will need to be retrained to prevent customers from touching any jewelry. If a shopper tries on a garment, they'll have to tuck it away for a few days to ensure any germs die. Returns will have to stop.

"People come in and they want to touch pretty things," Adams said. "They want to hold it. Then they'll decide if they want to buy it. All of that is out the window. So my business model is completely changed."

Adams also wonders where she's supposed to send her 10-year-old daughter with schools closed to students.

Groove Stone owner Stephanie Adams and shop manager Raelle Mejias pose for a photograph. Adams says she is still grappling with the logistical hurdles of reopening the store. (Stephanie Adams)

Cartago restaurant and bar in Forest Heights will also remain closed on Thursday, Ingraham said.

A third of the restaurant's 50 seats are at the bar, which she can't yet reopen. 

The guidelines published this week leave her feeling no more confident staff or patrons would be safe in the restaurant, she said. All businesses are now infection control managers, and they've received no directives from the government on how to do that, Ingraham said.

"There's too much grey area, and it's too much of a risk to staff and patrons to say, 'Let's figure this out,' " she said.

She's worried that independent restaurants are less equipped to handle rapid changes needed to respond to the pandemic and that could damage local food scenes in Edmonton and Calgary.

Businesses have also flagged their difficulty in finding personal protective equipment, the CFIB's Dormuth said. Two of business owners said Tuesday that they didn't know where to find it or what they required to protect their customers.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Alberta government posted links to two websites where Alberta businesses can order supplies like masks, face shields, gowns and gloves.

Justin Brattinga, press secretary for the minister of economic development, trade and tourism, said the government had received hundreds of inquiries from businesses since launching a guidance website for reopening businesses on Monday.

Those questions are being directed to appropriate ministries and staff, he said.

Asked if the government was considering grants to small businesses, Brattinga pointed to existing provincial pandemic support programs, including deferred corporate income tax collection, coverage of 50 per cent of Workers' Compensation Board premiums and deferred non-residential property tax collection.

"As always, we will continue to work with Albertans and business owners to ensure a safe and successful relaunch of our economy," he said.

With files from Michelle Bellefontaine