Op-ed: Why Eastern Ontario businesses will pull through the COVID-19 crisis

Editor's Note

The Ottawa Business Journal expanded its editorial mandate in 2020 to increase its coverage of the wider Eastern Ontario businesses community. OBJ recently engaged veteran Eastern Ontario journalist Mark Van Dusen, who spoke with OBJ publisher Michael Curran about his experience covering the region, how it's pulled through economic adversity in the past and consistently emerged even stronger. Watch the video above for the full conversation and read more of Van Dusen's thoughts below.

In this stifling atmosphere of COVID-19, the lowly chip wagon looms as a symbol of hope.

Lowly not because of the quality of its food – there are good and bad french fries – but because it employs only one or two people and keeps no corporate headquarters. 

In my 50-plus years of roaming Eastern Ontario as a print reporter and TV broadcaster, I’ve seen businesses endure plenty of hardships. But the COVID-19 epidemic has emerged as a new kind of punch in the gut for business.

Businesses in the region – which run the gamut from family enterprises to entrepreneurial ventures to large corporations tackling global markets – have suffered from previous setbacks. These have tended to ravage specific business segments with localized chain-reaction impacts.

Go back to the bank foreclosures of the 1980s that turned farmers into vigilantes to protect their own. The ripping up of rail lines and closing of train yards that left many small-town dreams in the dust.

Not to say regional business has not shared in larger economic traumas. Take the bust following the boom of seaway construction. The high-tech crash of the early 2000s that counted the TV show I hosted as one of its casualties. The 2008 housing crisis that stopped new builds in mid-hammer blow. 

What’s so much worse with COVID-19 is that it directly pummels every business, big or small, without prejudice and with devastating cascading harm. The crunch is wider, bigger. Few will escape a clawing by the COVID-19 tiger. Some will not rebound when the all-clear is sounded.

Past experience gives us hope. Eastern Ontario business has snapped back from the previous crashes, busts and blowouts. Today, fewer rail lines move millions of tons of goods. High-tech enterprises and cutting-edge advanced manufacturers glitter proudly along the boulevards of Kingston, Cornwall and beyond. Housing starts, booming before COVID-19, will again scale upward.

For some segments, recovery will take patience, perseverance, adaptability and all the government help available. How and when budgets at all levels re-stabilize is uncertain. 

Each spring, hundreds of little chip stands open at every crossroads and grocery store parking lot across the region. This time, physical distancing will likely delay their re-emergence from hibernation. 

Take heart. When those first windows slide open, we will know that economic resurgence has begun and the memory of COVID-19 has begun to fade beneath the gooey, guilty euphoria of a cardboard carton of poutine.