Cross Country Checkup

Mixed reception to feds' COVID-19 response among Canadians as pandemic marches on

Nathan Hynes says revenue at his Toronto pub has been “decimated” to about 20 per cent of normal levels — and the federal government’s attempts to support businesses have fallen far short of his expectations.

Business owners, landlords thankful for CERB, rent relief, but resources spread thin

Nathan Hynes at his restaurant Sand and Pearl in Ontario's Prince Edward County. He's also owner of The Auld Spot pub in Toronto. (Submitted by Nathan Hynes)

Nathan Hynes was forced to close The Auld Spot pub in Toronto's Danforth neighbourhood in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The kitchen has remained open for takeout orders, and after Ontario moved to Stage 2 of the reopening process, he's been able to add a few tables to the patio.

But Hynes said revenue has been "decimated" to about 20 per cent of normal levels — and the federal government's attempts to support businesses have fallen far short of his expectations.

"It's not helpful. It's not even close to being enough," he told Checkup.

Hynes has kept a skeleton crew of full-time workers thanks to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS).

What grade do you give the Trudeau government on COVID-19? Have your say Sunday on Cross Country Checkup.

The Auld Spot's patio has been open for business since Ontario started to ease restrictions for public spaces, but owner Nathan Hynes says revenue is still down to about 20 per cent of a normal season. (Submitted by The Auld Spot)

But the longer the pandemic goes on, the less certain his future — and the future of thousands of small businesses across Canada — becomes.

"Two thousand dollars a month to give somebody to live on in Toronto, when the average price of a one-bedroom apartment is $2,100, is obscene," he said of the CERB.

Hynes said the government made two "major, major blunders": first, by waiting until May to introduce the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program.

He's thankful that his landlord applied for the rent relief program but said he knows many other merchants whose landlords did not do the same.

Second, he argues that the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA), which offers up to $40,000, should be a bailout rather than a loan.

As a loan, Hynes said, business owners are simply given a lifeline of a few weeks to a month at a time, doing little to ease fears of bankruptcy looming beyond the horizon.

"Shouldn't the bank have to take some sacrifice? Shouldn't all these big businesses with these wealthy shareholders and billions of dollars of profit — they don't have to suffer? While I'm at risk of losing my home?" he said.

"Frankly, it shows the absurdity of the Western economic culture."

Rent relief 'a tremendous administrative process': landlord

Michael Cooper, president of a Toronto-based office and residential developer called Dream, has used the CECRA program to help offset a portion of the rent for his tenants, which include commercial properties.

He calls the process of applying for rent relief, which includes absorbing 25 per cent of the rent from his clients, "a tremendous administrative process," but he's happy to do it.

"These are really tough situations, and it's not their [tenants'] fault. So I'm really pleased that they're getting support," he said.

Michael Cooper is president and CRO of DREAM, an office and residential developer. He says the government’s CECRA rent relief program worked out well for him and his tenants. (Submitted by Michael Cooper)

According to business advocates and even the federal government's own numbers, landlords like Cooper are in the minority.

As of June 8, Ottawa had paid out $39 million in rent relief. That's less than two per cent of the nearly $3 billion the Department of Finance budgeted for the program.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has repeatedly warned that the government's actions may either come too late or not provide enough to save small and medium-sized businesses that have closed their doors — often by provincial orders.

Cooper said he gives the federal government a "so-so" grade for its COVID-19 response. He acknowledges that putting everything together so quickly is hard and wonders if there's a more direct way to allocate the money.

But he also worries that the longer the pandemic goes on, the more difficult it will be for governments to get the money.

Artists continue to wait for green light

As a musician with no fixed business address, Renee Cingolani said she and her husband, who works in construction, wouldn't be able to survive without the CERB.

Her jobs included directing theatre productions and performing music at weddings, as well as teaching music from out of her home near Barrie, Ont. They all stopped "almost instantly" in March, she said.

"It is terrifying.... CERB is not close to what I would be making in my job. We've also had to use our savings to cover our daily bills and mortgage costs."

Musician Renee Cingolani worries that most businesses and venues that host the performing arts will remain a low priority in Ontario's gradual reopening of the economy. (Submitted by Renee Cingolani)

Cingolani gives the federal government credit for the support it's introduced so far, considering how quickly the pandemic upended people's daily routines.

"I don't think there's any way they could have planned for a situation like this. I do feel like they've done a pretty adequate job considering they, too, are flying by the seat of their pants," she said.

But she's worried how much longer she'll be able to go on, as the arts and entertainment sector remains a low priority for the economy's gradual reopening.

Reassurances ring hollow

Hynes is less forgiving. He said he would give the government a D grade for its overall pandemic response.

He upgraded that to a C only when compared to the United States, whose case numbers have skyrocketed as some districts reopen their economies while flouting health officials' recommendations.

Reassurances from public figures have rung hollow, as his and other businesses worry they're hanging on by a thread.

"Doug Ford making the cheesecake. John Tory sitting on the patio. Trudeau looking us into the eyes and telling me he's got my back, that we're the backbone of the economy. And then all the actions proving otherwise," Hynes said.

Written by Jonathan Ore, with files from Kirthana Sasitharan and CBC Politics.

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