By: Sara Beth Dacombe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Niverville Citizen
For two years, local businesses have been asked to endure the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions have been tightened and loosened. Getting supplies into the heart of the country has gotten more difficult. Also, interest rates are rising and loans being recalled.
Recently, the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce (MCC) commissioned a survey of Manitoba business leaders to determine to what degree the pandemic continues to plague the economy.
According to the results of that survey, four out of five Manitoba business leaders say that COVID-19 continued to have some level of impact on their business in 2021. However, the overall sentiment has brightened dramatically, with 89 percent of respondents describing themselves as optimistic about their business operations.
“Manitoba business leaders seem to have a renewed sense of confidence that we’re moving in the right direction—in terms of business operations and growth predictions, government pandemic management, and competitiveness—but there are challenges,” reads a new release from the MCC, published in early December.
Maranda Rosko, executive director of Southeast Commerce Group, agrees.
“The effects of the pandemic’s restrictions and lockdowns have definitely impacted local businesses,” Rosko says. “Some businesses are seeing a lingering negative effect from the pandemic while others are beginning to recover. Some businesses have also noticed that the pandemic offered them new opportunities to connect with their customers in different ways, being a positive impact. At this time, our region is happy to not be under heavy restrictions to allow our local businesses to find their groove in this ‘new normal’ and continue to serve their customers.”
Of course, that was before new capacity restrictions arrived in late December, in response to the surge of new COVID-19 infections due to the highly transmissible omicron variant.
Many businesses pivoted to a curbside pickup and takeout model, with some success. And if they didn’t have an online presence before, many businesses finally took the opportunity to create websites equipped with online appointment portals, payment systems, and full catalogue of their products and services.
“We are seeing a significant shift from in-person shoppers to online shoppers,” says Rosko. “Offering an online shopping option can benefit your current customers and even gain you some new ones.”
She also encourages many businesses to continue utilizing the resources provided by their local Chamber to network with other businesses in their region.
The Southeast Commerce Group spent some time at the end of November actively planning for the next one to three years. In those sessions, they discussed their intention to continue providing business support through ventures like the Southeast ChamberMarket.
“The Southeast ChamberMarket is like an online mall for southeast Manitoba where businesses can sell their products and services, and customers can shop locally from the comfort of their home,” Rosko explains. “We plan on continuing to grow the Southeast ChamberMarket beyond the holiday shopping season for years to come.”
Busier than Usual
Some businesses, like St. Adolphe Pharmacy, have been able to stay open throughout the lockdowns because they offer essential services.
But just being able to stay open hasn’t been a guarantee that business would go smoothly.
Massoud Horriat, who owns the pharmacy, says that the biggest challenge they had to overcome was sanitization. Like many other businesses, they had to hire extra staff to help with these extra cleaning procedures.
“By itself, COVID was just such a challenge, but I had to stay open because I was essential,” Horriat says. “I was needing extra staff for the extra sanitization. For me, I have extra cleaning criteria in place because I do vaccinations out of this location.”
Initially, Horriat had to change the layout of his pharmacy to accommodate foot traffic and ensure social distancing. This was time-consuming, of course, but his long hours continued long afterward.
“I’m the only one who does vaccination locally because I’m licensed to do it,” he adds. “Doing it at my location added a lot of extra steps and cautionary measurements. It just adds on a lot of time, and I am the one that needs to do it. For example, I was doing vaccinations today so I’ve been here since 4:00 a.m., because vaccination requires lots of paperwork, data entry, and monitoring. It’s just so many long hours.”
Another new task that takes up his time is navigating the COVID-19 inspections that regularly come his way.
“We get visits from the COVID inspectors daily and we have to meet the requirements,” says Horriat. “We are a pharmacy, so we have to be very careful.”
Horriat explains that his business was stable, or perhaps even busier than usual, during the pandemic.
But there is one type of customer that he hasn’t been happy to see coming back more often. The pharmacy owner says that he now has to deal with people coming to his business to try and debate with him the merits of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I’m having increased visitors that are anti-vaccine actively come to try and debate me,” says Horriat. “I’m doing vaccinations and once or twice a week people are stopping in to ask me why I’m doing vaccinations… As recently as this morning, people came into the store to promote an anti-parasitic medication instead of the vaccine and I’m not encouraging that.”
Horriat is hopeful that the more people get vaccinated, including their booster shot, the more society will be able to return to normal, allowing businesses to feel less pressure.
“I’m hopeful in the future, as the pandemic turns to endemic, that there will just be so much less hassle, less worry about sanitization and everything on and on,” he says. “Some people who are anti-vax, with the new rules coming into play there are new places, more and more, that they can’t go to, and they are realizing they need the vaccine. I’m hopeful. The more we are educating people, we will see things going back to normal.”
Repaying Loans and Meeting Demand
While the pharmacy remained stable and businesses that could offer remote services did so, other industries have had an even harder time.
The hospitality and wellness sector has been particularly hard-hit.
Nicole Devloo is a registered massage therapist with The Body Repair Shop in St. Adolphe. She says that she had to take on loans to stay afloat during the two lengthy lockdowns in Manitoba.
Emergency loans were made available and helped many businesses pull through. These businesses may otherwise have been forced to close their doors forever.
However, many businesses are now feeling the pinch as loan repayments come due.
“I had to do CERB and the [Manitoba] bridge grant,” says Devloo. “Being self-employed, yeah, it’s tough. I mean, taxes beat you down anyway so [the loans] are, like, just throw it on there. I’ll be paying it off sometime anyway, so it may as well be now. Taxes are a big hit for the self-employed, and I’m always trying to stay on top of what I owe.”
Devloo says that the health and wellness industry often sees an increase in business before people’s benefits plans end for the fiscal year, so she has personally been seeing a lot of clients lately.
But not all of her clients are completely comfortable coming in to see her in person, as they perceive an ongoing risk to being in close contact with service providers like massage therapists.
“Most are returning to us if they had been seeing massage therapists before the pandemic hit, and those who are just now coming to see us again are typically happy when they come in,” says Devloo. “They want to use their benefits before they expire for the year, which may be prompting their return. And then we’ve had a few who we can tell are quite hesitant. They haven’t really left their homes except for grocery shopping and now they are needing massage so they are coming to us, so they are a bit nervous.”
The Body Repair Shop was so busy as of mid-December that they were recruiting a new massage therapist to join their team. However, finding staff has been a challenge.
“I am looking at hiring a new massage therapist,” says Devloo. “We are trying to find one who complements our team… It’s hard for people to switch to a new therapist, so we need to find a good fit. But a lot of people just aren’t changing jobs right now. It’s a tough time to want to work in the service industry if you don’t need to or don’t love it.”
By: Sara Beth Dacombe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Niverville Citizen