The message from businesses on Queen Street couldn’t be more clear: they need help, and they need it now.
Paul MacIntyre, Vintage Hotels’ vice-president of operations and chair of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce, says many businesses “are accumulating and facing insurmountable debt levels while being closed. They need direct aid over debt deferral to survive even after they open.”
The chamber and local retail and restaurant operators are communicating daily, he says, and the desperation they are hearing about is similar to what is happening in towns across Canada.
In Niagara, he says, “we need to consider the development of a tax credit, from the Province and Federal governments.” The Heritage Tax Rebate program is hopefully being considered by the Town, to support local businesses during the high-cost phases of reopening and operating, he says.
As the Province moves to its second stage of reopening, restaurant patios are being permitted to open in some regions, but not yet in Toronto and some other areas, including Niagara, but that is expected to change in the coming weeks. Although it’s a complex problem, restaurants need assistance to balance physical distancing and capacity issues, he says.
In areas moving into the next phase this week, restaurants, bars and food trucks are able to open patios and in parking lots, or adjacent premises, subject to municipal approval. The Province is allowing alcohol sales in outdoor eating spaces without an application fee to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, which was a local concern.
NOTL restaurants have been working on plans for slow, safe reopenings, says MacIntyre, without knowing the guidelines under which they can open.
MacIntyre is also working with Lord Mayor Betty Disero, Shaw Festival executive director Tim Jennings, Del Rollo, a wine industry leader, and Richard Wall, president of the Virgil Business Association, to help the Town’s emergency control group through the recovery period. The message is the same for all: they need assistance now. And the Town is looking at ways to provide that, as are the provincial and federal governments. He says he’s proud of the response, of the quick action to get help out quickly. In their haste to do that, mistakes are made, but they react quickly to fix them.
MacIntyre says they are also looking for new federal financial aid and grants to assist with openings, as operators require the personal protective equipment and infrastructure to comply with new health and safety protocols, but with little cash flow.
As openings are allowed, he says, “the Town and the merchants need to find the best method to open safe, with social distancing in confined busy spaces like Queen Street.”
They are also hoping for enhanced support of the emergency rent assistance. Again, it’s a complex situation which won’t work for all landlords or tenants, but with most businesses and restaurants on Queen Street operating at reduced capacity, they will require continued support for commercial rent. “They need protection from evictions while accessing emergency rent assistance,” says MacIntyre. “This is what we hear on our community chats and directly from many retailers. It is very similar to what is needed on all main streets across Canada.”
That was Monday morning, and by Monday afternoon, Premier Doug Ford was announcing a ban on commercial evictions, from June 3 until the end of August, for small businesses that qualify for the rent assistance program, with revenues that have dropped at least 70 per cent due to the pandemic.
The chamber has added new seats on its board for the merchants on Queen Street and the Bed & Breakfast Association, says MacIntyre. “We have also added a marketing advisory committee and operational advisory committee, so every voice is heard and every sector is covered when we start on a longer-term recovery plan.”
Although discussions have started, it is one step at a time, safely, and “with a feel of what the market tells us.”
Although hotels were always considered essential, most, including Vintage Hotels, Niagara’s Finest Inns and White Oaks Resort and Spa, shut down out of concern for safety of staff and patrons. The Pillar and Post and Prince of Wales are starting to take room reservations, he says, with a “very low” occupancy, while practising new guidelines. In the meantime, they are not actively marketing or promoting the hotels with a “massive campaign,” and are planning to slowly build on reopening as it’s safe.
The good news, says MacIntyre, is the way the community is working together.
“In these tough times, I do feel that we find hope in each other, and that we are very united. Much like after 911 and SARS, this community rose to the occasion to take care of each other and our guests, and we will do the same again. NOTL, the chamber and all the leaders in tourism are incredibly respected in all associations, at every level of government, and we are all working together for fast and real solutions.”
Most important to all businesses is being safe, assisting each other to get the economy moving, “and in true NOTL fashion, welcome our visitors back with the safest and highest level of hospitality in Canada.” NOTL, he says, has one of the most united, empathetic and caring group of leaders working together, “and if anybody can do it, we can.”