Edmonton

Six months in: How Alberta businesses are trying to stay alive during the pandemic

A lot has changed in those six months, but for many small and medium-sized business owners in Alberta, there are still uncertainties and worries their business may not outlive the pandemic.

'Financially, it's going to be really hard this year ... I don't know how long it will last'

A 'For Lease' sign sits on the windows of a former Starbucks location along Whyte Avenue, a sign of current vacancies in the area. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

It's been six months since most Alberta businesses were ordered by the provincial government to close due to COVID-19.

A lot has changed in those six months, but for many small and medium-sized business owners, there are still uncertainties and worries their business may not outlive the pandemic.

"Definitely small businesses right now are concerned and in a vulnerable position," said Annie Dormuth, Alberta provincial affairs director with Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

CBC News followed up with business owners in the Edmonton area and northern Alberta for the second time since March to see how they're navigating these uncertain times. 

CBC News followed up with three business owners six months after the province announced a shutdown of non-essential businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic to see how their businesses are coping. (CBC News)

The good

Despite months of uncertainty, Amy Laing, director and president of beauty salon Ponytails and Horseshoes said her business has managed to survive. 

The beauty salon was able to take advantage of several federal and provincial relief programs to bide its time before the business was allowed to reopen.

Now the salon is operating at almost pre-pandemic service levels.

"I'm grateful to be open. Not everybody is in that boat," she said. 

"You see 'for lease' signs up everywhere. The fact that everyone is working and I have [my staff] almost back at 100 per cent work capacity, I'm just grateful at this moment that we made it."

Laing's business isn't alone. 

Some businesses have been busy enough to sustain themselves during this pandemic. 

Many retail stores, particularly those who offer services and goods in higher-than-average demand, have been doing well, a reflection of people's changing habits due to the pandemic. 

Other business owners have used this time to open their doors

"There are going to be outliers of small businesses doing well," Dormuth said.

The bad

But Dormuth said the reality is the majority of the small and medium-sized businesses in the province are suffering.

"What we have heard from members is the reason why [they're] seeing lower revenues is simply because there's not as many customers returning to their business and also customers are spending less on average," she said.

"So all of those point to small business recovery is going to be a long, and a slow process for our province's job creators."

More than 8,500 businesses closed in the Edmonton and surrounding area between March and May this year, according to data released by Statistics Canada.

A man walks by one of the vacant storefronts along 17 Avenue S.W. in Calgary. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a 30 per cent drop in retail sales in Alberta. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

It's a bleak outlook for many owners including Shaan Chahal, co-owner of the Edmonton clothing store Sonia's Runway.

Although the store in southwest Edmonton can open to the public, Chahal has hesitated to open the store's doors.

She said it would be hard to maintain physical distancing and other health measures in a small clothing boutique.

"It's been a struggle," she said, adding the store has relied on e-commerce to earn some revenue. 

"Financially, it's going to be really hard this year. It's a lot of costs that add up. I don't know how long it will last."

Chahal says she has been thankful for the provincial and federal relief programs and grants.

"It has been helpful, I just don't know how helpful it's all going to be in the long-run," she said. 

Financially, it's going to be really hard this year.- Shaan Chahal, co-owner of Sonia's Runway

Some relief programs on the provincial and national level that business owners across the country have relied on are coming to an end.

The federal government extended its commercial rent relief program one last time for this month.

Small commercial businesses can no longer defer electricity and natural gas bill payments in Alberta and a provincial bill aimed at protecting businesses from eviction or rent increases ended last month.

Alberta corporate income tax balances owing on or after March 18 are due at the end of this month.

But there is some relief remaining for businesses.

The federal wage subsidy is still available and businesses in Alberta can still apply for up to $5,000 in one-time funding from the province to offset relaunch costs.

A pedestrian wearing a mask walks down the empty streets of downtown Edmonton in March. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Alberta has approved 12,070 applications through their small and medium enterprise relaunch grant program, totalling more than $45 million, according to Justin Brattinga, press secretary to the minister of jobs, economy and innovation.

Chahal said what businesses are looking for now as the pandemic passes the six-month mark is support for major overhead costs like rent.

"Governments are giving us loans and helping us as best as they can," she said.

"Unfortunately with the programs in place, the loans and the help we've been getting is a band-aid on a bigger leak and I'm very scared about things going forward." 

The very busy

In Yvonne Dunn's workplace, the relief her staff is looking for the most isn't monetary in nature. They're looking for relief from increased demand that has lasted months. 

The general manager of Pinnacle Distribution in Lloydminster, Alta., a janitorial sanitation supplier, said the company has been inundated with requests for products like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and cleaning products since January.

"We have experienced insanity for the last several months. Absolute insanity," she said.

"We don't have a spare second on any given day."

Staff at Pinnacle Distribution in Lloydminster, Alta. have been busy looking for items like face shields, disposable gloves and hand sanitizer for their commercial clients. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Slower-than-average supply chains due to the pandemic have made it difficult to procure supplies for Pinnacle's clients.

But it doesn't mean the demand and calls from customers have stopped, Dunn said.

"For us, it has been non-stop for nine months," she said, adding that paid leave would benefit her coworkers.

"Some small businesses that have had to maintain and coach staff through difficult days, difficult times and difficult customers, we would like to see relief for those workers."

The business owners agree there is a lot of uncertainty and they all hope their customers continue to support them over the next few months.

"I think for a lot of us, this is our dream, our career, our life. We thrive on our local community supporting us. Every dollar spent in any of our stores or restaurants, it means a lot," said Chahal. 

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