How to help small businesses during COVID-19 pandemic: U of T expert

A sign reads: Dear customer, since the risk associated with the coronavirus emerged we'll close on march 18 until further notice. Sorry for the inconvenience. niuda
A message to customers hangs on the front of Niuda Hand-pulled Noodles in downtown Toronto (photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a “profound impact” on Canada’s small businesses, says Lisa Kramer, a professor of finance at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

On Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford ordered all non-essential services to shut down for 14 days, starting 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, March 24. This came after Toronto’s medical officer of health last week called on all non-essential businesses, including clothing stores and salons, to close. The announcement is an expansion of the earlier mandated closure of theatres nightclubs, restaurants and bars, with the exception of take-out and delivery operations.  

These closures, combined with people following expert advice to stay home as much as possible and practise social distancing, means businesses are feeling the pinch.

Kramer says the additional measures will hit the service sector “especially hard,” adding that businesses are trying to pay employees, but for many small businesses that may not be possible because they are already working with such thin margins and have other bills to pay, including rent.

“We’re lucky we have a government that’s trying to be responsive,” Kramer says, noting the government is loosening restrictions for those who need to access employment insurance and providing access to short-term loans.

The overall impact on business will depend on how long the pandemic lasts. If it’s only a couple of weeks, most businesses should be able to get back up and running, but if the shutdowns extend much longer, Kramer says, “inevitably, we’ll see some small businesses and even large businesses fail.” 

In addition to government measures, Kramer says consumers who have the financial means can also step up to help.

Some businesses are taking orders over the phone or online and offering delivery, Kramer notes. Some restaurants are still offering take-out and delivery. If purchasing goods or services now isn’t possible, gift cards may be another option, according to Kramer. She says that having money now means businesses can continue to pay employees.

There’s also the option of making a donation. Some arts organizations allow the cost of a ticket for a cancelled performance to be donated, with patrons receiving a tax receipt, Kramer says. Or donations can be made to organizations like The AFC (formerly the Actor’s Fund of Canada), which is a last resort for those in the entertainment industry who are struggling to pay bills.

Helping businesses is much the same as reaching out to a neighbour to help because it’s ultimately about helping people, Kramer says, explaining small businesses are run by individuals or families and employ people who are “equally affected by the barrage of bad news.” 

While many businesses are having to shut their doors, Kramer notes there are still workers on the front lines of grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations, which remain open. They have become providers of essential services, yet they are paid the least, she says.

“We need to think deeply about how we value work in our country,” Kramer says, adding there’s a lot to be said about the fabric of a community that knows how to help one another.

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