How are local businesses coping one year into the pandemic?

Photo by Darien Funk

March 24, 2020 marked the first time that Ontario Premier Doug Ford ordered all non-essential businesses to close their doors in an effort to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Over a year later, businesses are stuck in the same predicament.

Ontario once again had declared an emergency and a provincewide stay-at-home order, effective as of April 8, 2021, originally intended to stay in place for at least four weeks. 

Since then, a stricter stay-at-home order was imposed on April 17, 2021 for an additional two weeks. 

The stay-at-home order affects restaurants and bars who may only operate through take out, drive through or delivery, and many retail stores, which are only authorized for curbside pickup and delivery, by appointment. 

Excluding big box stores, in-store shopping or dining is — for the most part — not permitted. 

Undoubtedly, this past year has put many local business owners in precarious positions, with many facing immense instability. 

Tracy Van Kalsbeek, Executive Director of the Uptown Waterloo Business Improvement Area (BIA) said that the pandemic has posed many challenges for local businesses. 

“It’s been a challenging time to work at a BIA when you see businesses struggling and you know you want to be able to do more and you can’t, in a lot of cases.”

“We had more businesses closed than opened for the first time since we’ve been tracking [it] and that’s says a lot, because we were in almost like, five years of construction beforehand.”

“That’s why I always say Uptown Waterloo has been hit harder than most, because we were just finishing up that construction and then the pandemic hit,” Van Kalsbeek said. “So a lot of our businesses were still struggling from that. I wouldn’t even say that they were in recovery from that.”

With the closure of offices and employees being required to work from home where possible, this has also had an adverse impact on food services as the weekday lunchtime crowd is no longer around.

Van Kalsbeek said that while industries like retail, tourism and the arts are often being hit the hardest, many businesses have also been able to adapt to the circumstances. 

“We’ve seen some businesses really step up and grow and evolve their business plans. We’ve been able to brainstorm with them and problem solve with them, and that’s been really cool to see some businesses really flourish in a time like this.”

“Businesses that have done well are the ones that have moved to the e-commerce platform,” Van Kalsbeek said. 

Jennifer Freitas, CEO and owner of The Truth Beauty Company shared similar sentiments regarding e-commerce. 

Freitas said that early on in the pandemic, her business received an influx of community support, with many people looking for ways to support local while online shopping. 

“[Before the pandemic] I didn’t really rely on online sales. In fact, they were not a part of my business. But right at the beginning, there was just this huge community outreach.”

“All I had to do was really tidy it up, improve my copy, improve my imagery and [website] navigation things, which is great … that’s all that stuff that I was like ‘oh, that was actually beneficial,’” Freitas said.

While e-commerce has proved to be a useful platform for The Truth Beauty Company, Freitas finds that the consistent opening and closing of the province has had adverse effects on her ability to make sales. 

“if we’re closed, then my online store does it okay. But if we’re allowed to be open in these limbo stages, where who really knows what is going on, I find that my online sales also dip and then my in-person sales are just not there to pick it up.” 

When it comes to financial support for small businesses, Freitas had trouble getting much assistance. 

Freitas said that a lot of government supports, like the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) which is meant to ease businesses back into normal operations, were overly-complicated and hard to navigate.

“Honestly, you’d practically need an actuaries degree to figure out the calculations,” she said. 

Freitas concluded that the expenses needed to hire someone to figure out the calculations for CEWS as well as the government’s rent assistance program wouldn’t be worth her time in the long run. 

“If they were going to do wage subsidies, obviously making it easier to do that — or setting up a hotline that could [you] speak to on how to figure that out — that would’ve been great.”

“Just making sure that we had those tools or resources at our fingertips, that, I think, would have been advantageous to any of us,” Freitas said.

It goes without saying that the business landscape in Waterloo and Ontario will likely not be going back to normal anytime soon. 

“It’ll be interesting to see what the future retail looks like as well. It was already changing before the pandemic, where people weren’t needing as big of a footprint because they were also selling online,” Van Kalsbeek said.

“I think there’s still gonna be people out there, like me, who like to go and touch and feel something as opposed to just purchasing it online. I think there will always be people like that,” Van Kalsbeek said. “So, I think there will always be a need, but what it looks like is probably going to be very different.”

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