Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath visited a number of Niagara-on-the-Lake businesses Wednesday to discuss the official opposition party’s Save Main Street survival plan.
Accompanied by Niagara Falls MPP Wayne Gates and his St. Catharines counterpart, Jennie Stevens, Horwath began her journey at One Earth on Victoria Street and wrapped up with a tour of the Shaw Festival Theatre. Along the way, hosts Lord Mayor Betty Disero and NOTL Chamber of Commerce CEO Eduardo Lafforgue took Horwath to visit the Budapest Bakery, Irish Design and Sunset Grill.
Horwath took time to speak with each business owner about the struggles they have been facing under COVID-19, saying this was a key to her party’s proposal to support small businesses in the province.
“It’s one thing to develop policy, but it’s more important to get the sense from people on the ground how that policy can actually help,” said Horwath. “We developed our policy in consultation with the business community in the first place. We’re getting a lot of positive responses from people today, but we need the provincial government to step up to the plate.”
Horwath went on to criticize Premier Doug Ford for touring to “talk about a couple of businesses that he’s funded directly for conversion to PPE or other COVID-related enterprises, while ignoring the growing crisis on Main Street.”
The NDP Save Main Street plan would include a 75 per cent direct commercial rent subsidy of up to $10,000 a month for three months, for businesses that continue to struggle during the pandemic. It also calls for a utility payment freeze, a fund to help businesses equip employees with computers so they can continue to work at home, a designated emergency fund for small businesses, and a fund to aid businesses in preparing for safe reopening with provisions for PPE and changes to physical spaces due to safety concerns. The cost of the Save Main Street plan is estimated to range from $850 million to $1.15 billion.
“These are not repayable loans,” added Horwath, “but full grants, because we’re all in this together and if Main Street isn’t saved, it’s not only about the business owners, it’s about the entire community.”
Anett Kane, owner of Budapest Bakery, was pleased to welcome the NDP leader. “I’m so glad she came to see our shop, and our town,” she said, “because in person I think she can see how we struggle with everything, especially with COVID.”
As a relatively new business, open for only 16 months, Kane says it has been particularly difficult for her and her four employees to weather the pandemic storm, though the influx of tourists over the past couple of weeks has been promising.
Amanda Terry, owner of the Queen Regent Bed & Breakfast, also joined the tour at the invitation of One Earth owner Terri-Lynn Woodhouse. Since reopening in mid-July, she has strived to get her business back to being profitable, but knows that her revenue will at least be cut in half this year. She says current programs have not done enough to help businesses like hers.
“My payroll was just under what they wanted the level to be,” she explains, when asked about the federal Canada Emergency Benefit Account (CEBA) loan available to small businesses. The regulations have since been modified, and she has reapplied. She is waiting for the application to be processed, but laments having to go “months and months without a loan that would help me get through the winter.”
Horwath summed up what she heard from business owners and others during her first 90 minutes in town. “The concerns are what the future holds, and how long before that future starts to take hold,” she explained. “People are worried about hanging on for an unknown amount of time, and about the supports they need to be able to stay afloat during that time period, so when we get back to some kind of normal, they are still able to run their businesses.”
She was happy, though, to see the town busy on a mid-week afternoon. “For me that’s a positive sign, and I think what it says is that as long as people continue their social distancing, their wearing of masks, they have a level of comfort seeing other people doing what needs to be done, and that’s a key to continue to tamp down the virus. I’m grateful and proud of Ontarians.”
The entourage was later met on stage at Shaw by executive director Tim Jennings and production director Don Finlayson. Horwath began the visit by commending Jennings on the recent National Post coverage of the theatre company’s shrewd decision to take out pandemic insurance three years ago, a move that has allowed most of Shaw’s 500-plus employees to continue working. She was then invited to try out a new prototype seat designed to allow theatre-goers to stay physically isolated from each other while enjoying a performance.
From there, it was on to the costume department, where head of wardrobe Jason Bendig described how Shaw staff was mobilized to make gowns and masks for front-line healthcare workers.
Horwath was suitably impressed. “To see the ingenuity, the talent, the community spirit, the drive to not only internally as an organization help their staff through this, but then those folks put their talents to work, making the masks, the gowns, and supporting each other and the broader community. It’s the best of human nature and it’s great to see on display here at the Shaw.”
Earlier that same day, Horwath visited St. Catharines, where she held a roundtable discussion with long-term care workers who described being run off their feet, understaffed and overworked. Said personal support worker Lisa Frame of Radiant Care Pleasant Manor in NOTL, “with personal support workers spread thin, seniors in long-term care can wait days and days for help with basic hygiene like bathing and shaving. The Ontario government needs to assist with increasing staff levels and wages in long-term care and also provide support for recruitment of new staff and incentives to keep staff.”
“It’s been really disappointing,” said Horwath in NOTL, “that the government has not been responding at all to what we’ve been providing in terms of recommendations and advice (on a number of issues).”