Extension of code red restrictions worries Manitoba's jobs minister

The Manitoba government says it can't commit to extending its bridge grant funding program to businesses if the current code red restrictions are extended on Friday.

Businesses will have to wait to see new orders, likely to be made public Friday

Customers walk through an empty hallway and past closed retailers, as they leave a cellphone store at Polo Park shopping centre on Boxing Day. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

The Manitoba government says it can't commit to extending its bridge grant funding program to businesses if the current code red restrictions are extended on Friday.

"We want to make sure that business are sustained through this tough time, but we don't have a crystal ball and I don't think any other country does, either, when it comes to what COVID's going to look like [down the road]," Economic Development and Jobs Minister Ralph Eichler said at a Thursday news conference.

Finance Minister Scott Fielding said the province is "absolutely open to making changes" to its funding supports but "that really depends on the health orders."

The second round of the bridge funding — $5,000 per business — is flowing now to 10,500 businesses that qualified.

Beyond that, it's anyone's guess.

"Of course, our goal is to, No. 1, protect Manitobans and also support businesses," Fielding said.

"We're open to providing additional supports, but before we know where things are at over the next number of weeks, we want to see where things go.

"We are open to conversations with the business community about how that would look like going forward."

Premier Brian Pallister said on Wednesday that Manitobans shouldn't expect much change in restrictions when the current orders expire on Friday.

That was repeated Thursday by acting deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal, who said there's no indication anything will be lifted.

Businesses will have to wait to see the new orders, which will likely be made public on Friday, he said.

'More to say' on supports next week: Fielding

Eichler admitted he is concerned about the impact an extension of the current restrictions would have on businesses.

"This is Day 66 of the shutdown since Nov. 12. It is substantial," he said. "We are worried, the same as every business."

Eichler said he's a businessman, so he knows the highs and the lows businesses face, but there's no cookie cutter for what works during a pandemic.

"But as we go through this, as Minister Fielding said, we're listening. We're here to adapt and make things work. And if not, then we'll try and find a way to make it work."

The news conference was held to tout Manitoba's business supports as the most generous in the country, with Fielding noting the government has provided more than $180 million through various programs.

In repeated talking points, he lauded how flexible the programs have been in accommodating home-based business and event planners — those who don't have retail storefronts.

But when asked why many businesses have claimed to be eligible for funds but haven't received them, Fielding went back to his talking point.

"The needs of Manitobans continue to evolve, of course, as we move through the pandemic. We're always going to listen to businesses to see who should be making sure the eligibility is there that does support taxpayers and business owners," he said.

"We're going have more to say on that next week."

'Urgent situation': NDP

Opposition NDP finance critic Mark Wasyliw called the government newser a rehash of previous announcements.

"What we didn't see was any new money. What we didn't see was any new supports for small business," he said, accusing the Progressive Conservative government of not planning for the second COVID-19 wave and the lockdown that resulted from it.

With the extension of the current lockdown likely, "yet again, this government is unprepared," Wasyliw said.

"Yet again, we're asking small businesses across Manitoba to make yet more sacrifices for the health and safety of Manitobans, yet the government has absolutely no supports for them in place.

"There are businesses closing by the day. This is an urgent situation."

Wasyliw also questioned the statistics presented by the government regarding the amount of funding spent.

Similar questions have been raised before. In November, the government was accused of underspending on its supports. 

"There's a habit with this government to release big, inflated numbers and then when you actually look at program delivery and spending, it's a fraction of what they actually claim," said Wasyliw.

But Fielding insisted "all the $180 million that's in the press release is money that has flowed or will flow tomorrow."


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