On day two of the new light lockdown for many businesses in Ontario, Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner appeared on a virtual press conference with Guelph entrepeneur Court Desautels, the CEO of The Neighbourhood Group. The point of the conference was to call on the Ontario government to do more for small businesses, even after an announcement from Queen’s Park to that effect, both Schreiner and Desautels say it’s not enough.
“I’m going to shift a bit and say that the government has to make sure they roll this program out in a way that works for small businesses, that there’s easy and timely access to that support, and that the government has a customer service portal to really assist businesses by answering their questions through the application process,” Schreiner explained.
About an hour before the press conference, the Government of Ontario announced that small businesses forced to closed this week will be eligible for a $10,000 small business grant, but the portal to apply isn’t open yet, and might not be for weeks, plus the payout won’t arrive until February. Desautels said he was concerned that the eligibility to access the funds might also be a barrier to some business owners.
“Once again, it’s looking like if you have over 100 employees, you don’t qualify, and that hurts a lot of businesses,” said Desautels, whose company includes the Wooly, Miijidaa, and Park Grocery. “The restaurant industry is very, very labour intensive, our most biggest cost is labour and food prices and we know food prices and labor costs are going up, so you have to open up the eligibility and understand that this money can’t just be dispersed in February. We need to pay rent at the first of the month.”
Schreiner joined Desautels in calling for an immediate transfer of grant funds to small businesses, and that the process for applying be made as simple as possible so that no businesses are falling through the cracks, or struggling with the application process only to get refused on a technicality.
“I can’t tell you how many small businesses were in my office asking for help to navigate what turned out to be a very complex system,” Schreiner said. “In some cases, in most cases, we were able to get those small businesses the funding they needed, but there was a six-month delay, which you can imagine, given the debt loads and cash flow constraints that so many small businesses are facing, is unacceptable.”
Desautels also said that he’s concerned about the government throwing up more barriers to small businesses getting the help they need given an Auditor General’s report in December that said over $200 million from the Ontario Small Business Support Grant went to businesses who were supposed to be ineligible to receive that funding.
“There’s going to be the narrative out there that a lot of businesses took advantage of the programs, but we have to look at the many who took advantage of it to save their businesses,” Desautels said. “Yes, there’s a few that took advantage of it and the government should probably make a stand and say, ‘We’re going to find out who is taking advantage, and you’re gonna have to pay that back because it’s not fair for all of us as taxpayers to incur that debt and especially when the funds should go to the people who need it the most.'”
Schreiner and Desautels also said that the Ontario government needs to think beyond the current crisis and start thinking about how they can help small business bounce back when the lockdown is over.
“The messaging from the government needs to say, ‘Hey, restaurants are safe, they’ve followed all the requirements, we have vaccine passports, we have all PPE, we’ve invested thousands of dollars into infrastructure to make sure that our patrons that come into our restaurant, and our employees, are safe,'” Desautels explained.
“We need to start getting creative with some solutions, like expanding the staycation tax credit,” Schreiner added. “I also think we need some clear guidelines about what supports are going to kick in at various stages of the public health response, so that way, both businesses and their employees know what supports are going to kick in automatically, rather than scrambling.”
“We can save everyone a lot of anxiety, and ultimately save government time and money, if we just have programs that automatically kick into place, and are clearly defined ahead of time,” Schreiner said.