Businesses hanging by a thread 'back where nobody wanted to be' with COVID-19 measures

Advocates say they fear reintroducing measures such as shutting down indoor dining and limiting capacity limits in retail settings could be the final nail in the coffin for businesses already battered by nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Province shutting down indoor dining, cutting retail capacity to 50 per cent on Jan. 5

The province has reintroduced restrictions for businesses in an attempt the blunt the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Reintroducing measures such as shutting down indoor dining and capacity limits in retail settings could be the final nail in the coffin, advocates say, for businesses already battered by nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Premier Doug Ford announced the province is returning to a modified version of Step Two on its roadmap to reopening for at least 21 days.

Indoor dining at restaurants and bars will be closed and retail settings, including malls, will be limited to 50 per cent capacity, beginning at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 5.

"It's really difficult to imagine how a lot of businesses are going to get through," said Keanin Loomis, CEO of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce. Many are hanging by a thread, he said.

Every time a wave of the pandemic winds down, businesses start to feel as though the end could be in sight, said Rachel Braithwaite, executive director of the St. Catharines Downtown Association.

Both she and Loomis said they understand the need for measures amid climbing case counts and the surging spread of the Omicron variant. But the return of regulations that clamp down on businesses will leave many owners "sad, frustrated and a little bit afraid," said Braithwaite.

"Now all of a sudden we're back where nobody wanted to be again."

"Being told to brace for a tsunami doesn't instill a whole lot of consumer confidence," Loomis said, describing Monday's announcement as a "second case of whiplash in the last couple of weeks."

The 50 per cent limit will also be in place for personal care services, while saunas, steams rooms and oxygen bars will be closed.

Takeout is a lifeline

Alcohol sales will not be permitted after 10 p.m. and people won't be able to drink at a business after 11 p.m.

Takeout, drive thrus and delivery will still be available, along with outdoor dining as long as it abides by restrictions.

For Silversmith Brewery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, takeout has been a lifeline while accommodating restrictions this past year. 

The brewery will return to takeout offerings for beer and food, which Lauren Leprich, Silversmith supervisor said "is better than nothing but not ideal."

"We've been able to kind of stay afloat with the takeout," Leprich said. "That's the only thing that's really saved us. if we had to close completely with no income, we would probably be in some pretty big trouble."

New occupancy limits

Leprich said they are just trying to get through the next stretch and hoping that it is only three weeks. But she said Ontario has seen restrictions to indoor dining extended in the past.

Social gathering limits have also been tightened to five people indoors and 10 outside.

Rachel Braithwaite is the executive director of the St. Catharines Downtown Association. She says small businesses will need government support to survive the latest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Supplied by Rachel Braithwaite)

Physical distancing will be required for lineups at malls and food courts will be forced to close, according to the province.

Indoor sports and recreation businesses, including gyms, will be shut down. Outdoor facilities can stay open, but can only welcome 50 per cent occupancy for fans.

The measures also restrict businesses in the entertainment sector like concert venues, theatres and museums from allowing any visitors indoors.

Zero revenue, but expenses remain

"Throughout the last year and a half, it's been a matter of how long... how long can we go without being open?," Erik Dickson, owner of Warehouse Concert Hall in St. Catharines said.

"It depends entirely on the subsidy programs. The federal rent subsidy and the provincial small business grant program, those two in particular really kept the venue from closing permanently," Dickson said.

Dickson said without these types of government supports for businesses who are required to close their doors under current restrictions, he's not sure how much longer the venue can last and added that it may only be a matter of months.

"It's the reality of generating zero revenue, but having all of your expenses to pay," Dickson said.

The province has pledged some support through its Ontario Business Costs Rebate Program, offering rebates for a portion of property tax and energy costs while the measures are in place.

Government support 'crucial' for survival

Businesses that will be forced to limit their capacity by half (such as small retail stores) will receive a payment covering the equivalent of 50 per cent of their costs, while businesses that have to shutter indoor services (such as gyms and restaurants) will receive a rebate for 100 per cent of their costs.

A full list of eligible businesses will be provided later this month when applications open, said the province.

No other specifics were shared by the government on Monday, which Braithwaite said was "a bit frustrating."

She pointed out that property tax and hydro rebates don't do much to help small businesses that are renting their space.

Loomis said any help is welcome, but said the province's contributions have been much smaller and federal support is "absolutely crucial" for small business survival.