'Our community is in crisis': Edmonton business survey says nearly half don't think they'll survive

Measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Alberta are already proving devastating to the health of many businesses in Edmonton, according to a new survey conducted by the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.

Employers worry about making payroll, looming layoffs, says chamber of commerce

Signs block off the closed food court at Edmonton's City Centre East mall on March 17. A new Edmonton Chamber of Commerce survey says nearly half of its respondents think they will be put out of business by the COVID-19 crisis. (Axel Tardieu/CBC)

Measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Alberta are already proving devastating to the health of many businesses in Edmonton, according to a new survey conducted by the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.

"Our community is in crisis and I think that's really alarming because these are such early days," chamber president Janet Riopel told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Wednesday.

The chamber first conducted a COVID-19 impact survey with its members in mid-March, then repeated it one week later.

Questions ranged from the ability to make payroll to expectations of staying open. Riopel said the responses are proof of a heightened desperation among local businesses about the global pandemic's economic effects.

"This time, 25 per cent of businesses don't think they have enough cash on hand to make payroll in the next period. That's really alarming," said Riopel, who added that concern didn't surface in the first survey.

"Seventy per cent, of course, are encouraging staff to work from home; it was only 42 per cent last week. Sixty per cent have laid staff off already — and, actually, only 13 per cent don't expect to lay off staff as we go forward."

Perhaps the biggest shock was that four per cent of respondents, all of them small businesses with fewer than five employees, have already gone out of business, Riopel said.

Nearly half are expecting that they'll shut down as well.

"Nearly half," she said. "And that … was before the province closed non-essential businesses."

About 500 businesses have participated in the surveys so far, Riopel said. The chamber intends to continue doing the survey every second week.

Riopel praised many of the government initiatives that have been launched in the last week to assist businesses, ranging from a city decision to allow businesses to defer paying property taxes to federal programs to help cover staff wages in the short term.

But information on how the programs will work is slow in rolling out, creating stress for businesses who aren't sure how — or if — they'll be able to get relief, she said.

"Liquidity is incredibly important right now," she said. "Having cash on hand is increasingly important. It's important for businesses, it's important for individuals, of course, and it's important for governments in order that they can continue to deliver essential services."

Riopel said the provincial government was absolutely right to close non-essential businesses, given the rise in community spread of COVID-19.

Now she hopes that the federal and provincial government will tap local expertise and manufacturers for services like manufacturing personal protective equipment to help get through the current crisis.

"This business community needs our support more than ever," she said.

"Business owners are trying so hard to maintain some stability, some calm, some control and this environment is changing so rapidly. 

"They have no idea how they can hang on."


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