Charter bus, airline companies in Manitoba can apply to new program to recover COVID-19 costs

Charter bus and airline operators in Manitoba whose businesses have taken a hit during the pandemic will have a new program to help them recover.

$1.92M program offers help to charter transport companies that have taken a hit during pandemic

The province and Manitoba Chambers of Commerce announced the program at Beaver Bus Lines garage on Archibald Street. (CBC)

Charter bus and airline operators in Manitoba whose businesses have taken a hit during the pandemic will have a new program to help them recover.

The provincial government and Manitoba Chambers of Commerce announced businesses could soon apply to the $1.92 million Charter Transport Recovery Program.

Chuck Davidson, president and chief executive officer of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, said the pandemic has impacted businesses across the province, but transportation companies have been hit especially hard.

"There's no pickup, there's no delivery, there's no online sales for this industry," he said, speaking at a news conference at the Beaver Bus Lines garage on Archibald Street.

"This is an industry that has been forced to deal with what the pandemic has handed them."

Costs associated with "maintaining, restarting or ramping up operations" that had to temporarily shut down or scale back due to the COVID-19 pandemic will be eligible for funding from the program, the province said in a news release.

Only costs not covered by another program will be eligible.

Running at a loss

Mahihkan Bus Lines, a company owned by six Manitoba First Nations serving communities in the north, estimates it has lost around $2.5 million due to COVID-19.

Early in the pandemic, the province restricted travel north of the 53rd parallel in an effort to prevent infections in the region. 

"We were running some days with two or three people on our bus, but we still had to keep going, because people of the north still require transportation" for medical needs, said Karen Leslie-Larocque, manager for Mahihkan Bus Lines.

The company has been running at a loss, and although the funding from the program won't cover all of its costs, "every little bit helps," Leslie-Larocque said.

"We have been running, and we we still are running, and it's our commitment to the North, but what we can receive from the government will be greatly appreciated."

Kasper Wabinski, the president of Kasper Bus Lines which services Winnipeg and northern Ontario, said the Manitoba government has ignored bus transportation during the pandemic and called for more funding than $1.92 million.

"Two million is a loss that you could presume just from one company alone," Wabinski said.

"But obviously, the money is welcomed and appreciated to fill in the gaps, wherever any other program has not done its part."

Wabinski doesn't know yet if his company will qualify for funding.

'A starting point': minister

The program will be administered by the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, Economic Development Minister Jon  Reyes said at the news conference.

Reyes called the program a "starting point" to help companies that often provide transportation for schools, amateur sports, seniors clubs, rural communities and the tourism industry. 

Details about the program, including how businesses can apply and what the funding criteria are, will be announced in the coming days.

Businesses in the transportation industry vary in terms of size and the amount of funding support they need, Davidson said. It's important that the program be scalable to meet the differing needs of businesses.

"It's not sort of a one-size-fits-all program for everyone. We've been in negotiations and discussions with the province in terms of what that program is going to look like," he said.

The province expects to begin accepting applications beginning later this month. 

With files from Riley Laychuk