Ottawa businesses urge faster, more direct COVID-19 response from all levels of government

Ottawa entrepreneurs and business advocacy groups gave mixed reviews to a series of aid packages unveiled Wednesday aimed at helping companies weather the storm during the COVID-19 outbreak, with some local executives wondering if the measures are too little, too late.

Wednesday morning, the federal government announced a massive $82-billion relief package to help regular citizens and businesses cope with the global pandemic, including wage subsidies and extra time to file tax returns. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said pending approval of the measures by an emergency session of Parliament, the programs could be up and running within weeks.

Later in the day, the City of Ottawa said it would also give property owners additional time to pay their tax bills in an effort to help alleviate the financial pain the novel coronavirus is inflicting on individuals and businesses. 

The city said the deadline for paying the interim tax bill, which amounts to 50 per cent of the year’s entire property tax bill and was mailed out last month, would be extended to April 15 from the current deadline of March 19. 

Small businesses and residents that are in particularly dire financial straits will be eligible to apply for a deferral until the end of October. Council must still approve the measures at its next meeting on March 25.

But the various offers of assistance came as cold comfort to at least one local business owner.

“I can’t say there’s much there to help us immediately,” said Glen Shackleton, founder and CEO of Haunted Walk, a locally based company that offers guided walking tours in Ottawa, Kingston and Toronto.

“I’m actually very disappointed so far in what I’ve seen in that it appears that small business has not been made a priority by any level of government at this point. They’re not moving fast enough. They continue to make announcements saying that there’s help available, but when you investigate those programs, they don’t offer any actual money.”

Shackleton
Glen Shackleton, CEO of Haunted Walk.

Shackleton, who told OBJ he’s had to lay off about 100 employees after shutting down his business on Monday in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, called the federal government’s aid package “a lot of smoke and mirrors” because it doesn’t provide any immediate relief to entrepreneurs who desperately need it.

For example, he said the feds’ plan to offer a temporary 10 per cent wage subsidy to small businesses for up to three months won’t help companies like his that have already had to cut a substantial portion of their workforces.

“That’s irrelevant to a lot of businesses that are having to lay off all their staff,” Shackleton said, adding that many financially strapped businesses require help right now, not months down the road. 

He suggested governments should be providing instant assistance such as up-front grants to small businesses that are in imminent danger of failing.

“That’s the kind of support that’s needed, and it appears that no level of government is so far willing to step up to the plate and provide that,” he said.

The city’s offer to extend the payment deadline for property taxes is a nice gesture, he said, but he wondered how many businesses will actually benefit from it.

“A lot of businesses don’t pay their property taxes directly, so it remains to seen” what impact that measure will have, Shackleton said, noting many companies rent rather than own their premises.

Ottawa Board of Trade president and CEO Sueling Ching said the federal package announced Wednesday is “very much in line” with recommendations from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. 

Ching said she’s reserving judgment on the programs until she hears more details about how they’ll be implemented.

“What we know is that this is really just stage one of the package,” she said. “I would say it’s an evolving process.”

Ching said her members want assistance plans rolled out as soon as possible. She’s also encouraging larger businesses to do whatever they can to help smaller enterprises navigate through the crisis, whether it’s retail or restaurant chains waiving franchise fees or landlords giving small business tenants a break on their rent for a few months.

“There is a sense of urgency in terms of how (businesses) can continue to operate,” Ching said. “Anything that we can do to relieve pressure at every level of the chain is beneficial.”