Manitoba businesses gird themselves for fresh wave of pandemic shutdowns

Manitoba business owners and industry leaders are bracing for the impact of widespread shutdowns announced Tuesday, and some say they still have questions about how the rules will work.

Non-essential retail, services, gyms, film production to shut down Thursday as province moves to red level

Kazumi Yoshino, a supervisor at Unique Bunny in Winnipeg, says the store is preparing to lose half its sales or more after news of broader shutdowns to be introduced on Thursday. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Manitoba business owners and industry leaders are bracing for the impact of widespread shutdowns announced Tuesday, and some say they still have questions about how the rules will work.

"There was no warning, no nothing," said Nicolas Phillips, president of the local branch of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents behind-the-scenes film workers, from lighting technicians to costume designers.

"There's so many questions in the air right now that we just don't know."

Starting Thursday, all non-essential retail stores, gyms and personal services businesses will close as the entire province moves into the red — or critical — level of its pandemic response system. The province says social gatherings and team sports will be banned and film production must cease.

Phillips said he's not clear on how that will work for the film industry. There are several TV shows and movies currently in production, employing hundreds of people, and many are in various stages of winding up or down, he said.

Entire departments are dedicated to COVID-19 safety for shows big and small, he said, and he's not aware of a single case of the illness on any set so far.

"We are our own bubble. I work on film in the lighting department. I work on set. I come home, I go back to set," the IATSE Local 856 president said. "I feel safer on a film set than I do going to the grocery store."

He's hoping the province can deliver clarity — and soon.

"It would immediately cease a $300 million-plus industry and our 560 members, plus many permittees, would be instantly out of work," he said.

"A lot of people … just want some answers. I'm one of them."

'Shocked and a bit panicky'

For Kazumi Yoshino, a supervisor at Winnipeg retailer Unique Bunny, the new rules could not have come at a worse time. The store was about to host a grand opening for its new location on Pembina Highway, joining its Osborne Village location, but is now preparing for a major financial hit.

"We got really shocked and a bit panicky," Yoshino said Tuesday.

Provincial guidelines say the store, which sells products from Korea, Japan and China, can still open to customers a restricted capacity, since it sells essentials including food and office supplies, she said.

But she's expecting to lose half her sales or more in the coming weeks, and said the store will have to lay off some employees.

"It has been really hard, but we are just doing our best to focus on everyone's safety."

Religious gatherings go virtual

In-person faith-based gatherings will also be banned starting Thursday. That aspect of the new rules didn't come as a surprise to John Neufeld, lead pastor at The Meeting Place, who said many congregations have already moved in that direction.

"This is what we do to love our neighbours as ourselves," Neufeld said Tuesday. "Most of our churches across the city, in different denominations, were, in fact, functioning at below 15 per cent [capacity] deliberately, and people were participating in online live stream or Zoom worship experiences with others."

While hundreds join virtually, his own church has recently seen about 60 or 70 people in-person on Sunday mornings, in a space that hosted 750 to 850 people most weekends pre-COVID-19, he said.

Now, the church will go fully virtual except for its food bank, with a pre-recorded service instead of a live stream.

"I believe spiritual health and relational health and community … can be done in ways that aren't dependent on the church building."

Both Winnipeg Central Mosque and Manitoba Grand Mosque are also already entirely virtual, after closing down their limited in-person gatherings last week.

The Manitoba Islamic Association also provides a #VirtualMosque service, with Facebook Live and Zoom sessions planned for this weekend.

Business leaders approve of new provincial supports

Loren Remillard, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, said he's disappointed but not surprised by the move to the critical level.

He approves, though, of planned new small business supports from the province. That includes the Manitoba bridge grant, which will provide $5,000 to businesses that apply before Christmas, with the possibility of $5,000 more in the New Year.

A provincial gap-funding initiative will also be transformed from its current form — a conditional loan — to a grant that employers don't have to pay back, Premier Brian Pallister said Tuesday.

"It's not just programing for the here and the now, but gives a nod to the future, and the potential that we may continue to be facing economic hardships as a business community," Remillard said Tuesday.

Jonathan Alward, the Prairie director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said new business supports address most of the issues the federation had with previous provincial programs.

"Going forward though, it will be important to make sure this help is in place if these restrictions are prolonged or if other waves occur," he said.

With files from Marina Von Stackelberg, Karen Pauls and Bartley Kives