Manitoba

Downtown Winnipeg businesses asking for financial help to make it through summer

Businesses owners and employees in downtown Winnipeg are wondering how they'll survive another summer of COVID-19 public health restrictions. They're asking the province for more details on financial help and reopening plans.

47 out of 400 storefront, ground-floor businesses have closed in downtown since the pandemic started

Kidong Lim works at INS Market in the underground concourse at 201 Portage Avenue. He says with most employees in the area working from home, his store is quiet. (Sam Samson/CBC)

Business owners and advocates are asking for more help and details now that the province has unveiled its reopening plan.

"What we need right now is financial support to help these businesses get through the next couple of months, and then we can work together as a community to put together a strategy so we can come back," said Kate Fenske, executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone (BIZ).

Fenske says 47 out of 400 downtown storefront businesses have closed since March 2020, and she worries others could shutter if help doesn't come soon. 

Downtown Winnipeg businesses sending out an SOS -- Save Our Storefronts

3 months ago
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Businesses in downtown Winnipeg are asking for more support and clarity now that the province has unveiled its reopening plan. 2:20

In a news conference earlier this month, Premier Brian Pallister promised financial support for small businesses as part of the reopening plan. Fenske says she hasn't seen anything specific yet.

The BIZ was able to dole out more than $180,000 in grants in money it saved from cancelled events, but that cash flow has run dry. Fenkse hopes the province will put out another round of bridge grants

"Those have been a lifeline for businesses and kept many of them afloat," she said.

"The last one came a month ago. We know there's gonna be at least a few more months that businesses can't operate at full capacity, so they're going to need help through the summer."

Kate Fenske, CEO of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, says 47 out of about 400 ground-level storefronts in downtown Winnipeg have closed since the pandemic hit Manitoba. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

On top of financial help, Fenske says the province's reopening plan lacks clarity on which businesses can open and when. The plan lists dates for reopening goals while mentioning some businesses can open. There are no specifics about which industries are included at what time.

"We have some target dates that we're relying on people to get vaccinated so businesses can reopen, but we don't know which businesses are going to be included in that," said Fenske.

"We understand the need for flexibility in the plan. Absolutely. But businesses really need to know will we be able to open on that July 1 or Aug. 1? Will their sector be included?"

The Manitoba Chambers of Commerce is also looking for more details about which sectors will be allowed to reopen and when, and how test positivity rates, hospitalization numbers and other COVID-19 markers will affect the province's decisions — regardless of vaccine rates.

A provincial spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny another round of grants and said provincial employees were working with business owners to support them right now.

"Our focus is to increase vaccination levels and safely loosen restrictions for businesses this summer," the spokesperson wrote in an email.

Storefronts face silent streets

Things are slow across the district, according to Kidong Lim. He runs the convenience store INS Market in the underground concourse at 201 Portage Avenue. 

"It's a hard time," he said. "Not just for me, everyone."

Lim says since the Bank of Montreal opened at Portage and Main, things have picked up a bit. But that doesn't make up for how slow things have been since the pandemic started. 

On top of fears for the convenience store's future, Lim says he's worried for his own safety.

"I don't want to open. I'm scared of COVID. But I can't close because I need to pay the rent, feed my family, so I have to open," he said.

Lim says he's been trying to find another job as a software engineer — which is what he did for a living when he lived in South Korea — but things are tough in any industry.

Lim says other provinces seemed to offer more to small businesses than Manitoba. Overall, he hopes vaccine rates help things open up. He's already had his second shot.

"Hopefully that helps," he said.

Ruby Gill owns Metropolitan Dental Group in downtown Winnipeg. Business there is down 40 per cent due to COVID-19 restrictions. Gill says she looks forward to having a more vibrant downtown again. (Sam Samson/CBC)

On Portage Avenue, Ruby Gill says she's seen a 40 per cent drop in her business at Metropolitan Dental Group. Some of that is from travel restrictions, while some of it is from a lack of workers downtown, she said.

"It's kinda sad," she said of the closed businesses and lack of foot traffic.

Less than 20 per cent of workers who are normally in the area are still there, due to public health requiring employees work from home if possible.

Gill says she can still see a better future in downtown Winnipeg.

"'We're just hopeful that once everyone starts taking their vaccines things will open up again," she said. " I'm optimistic things will return to the way they were."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam Samson

Journalist

Sam Samson is a multimedia journalist who has worked for CBC in Manitoba and Ontario as a reporter and associate producer. Before working for CBC, she studied journalism and communications in Winnipeg. You can get in touch on Twitter @CBCSamSamson or email samantha.samson@cbc.ca.

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