Eric Foster, Vernon-Monashee MLA, and Coralee Oakes, Official Opposition critic for small business, answered questions and provided guidance to local business owners as they navigate their next steps amid the COVID-19 pandemic April 21, 2020. (Contributed)

COVID-19: ‘money needs to get out the door,’ Okanagan MLA says

Cariboo North, Vernon-Monashee MLAs talk business with chamber of commerce

Vernon-Monashee MLA Eric Foster and Cariboo North MLA Coralee Oakes joined the Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce’s general manager Dione Chambers for a Zoom Q-and-A period to talk about what recovery may look like for small- and medium-sized businesses.

The main message from the April 21 meeting was although COVID-19 response announcements from the federal and provincial government are great, the province needs to “get money out the door,” the elected officials said.

One issue with that is the province’s hands are tied to the federal government’s.

“We’re waiting for federal programs before they can roll out provincial programs,” Oakes, the Official Opposition critic for small business, said. “We need a whole bunch more work done on the provincial side.”

“Now more than ever, we need to be supporting our chambers of commerce,” Oakes said, offering praise to the hard work done by the Vernon chamber to support all businesses within its community.

“Economic recovery and how we support small business — focus groups are more important now than ever,” she said.

Both MLAs said it’s important to keep lines of communication open between the business sector and elected officials so they can advocate on behalf of the business community.

But more importantly, all parties said it’s important to start brainstorming as to how businesses can adapt amid the pandemic and what the recovery process will look like.

“How can you have physical distancing,” Oakes said. “Is there curbside pickup available?”

Chambers asked what is happening at a provincial level to deal with business economic recovery. The BC Chamber are among those doing some extensive research, but the MLAs said they were disappointed there was a lack of representation from north of Hope.

“We desperately needed representation from the Interior, the North and the Kootenays,” Oakes said.

Foster echoed the sentiments.

“There was no representation from parts of the province that create the wealth.”

The BC Chamber had recently done a “pulse check” and the numbers, Chambers said, are “grim.”

“Especially on the small business sector,” she said. “In a release, four out of 10 businesses don’t think they’ll last three months.”

The release, issued April 21, said 43 per cent of those surveyed said they could only continue operations for up to three months under the current restrictions. For businesses that have temporarily closed doors, the future is dire with only 53 per cent expecting to reopen while 38 per cent are unsure and eight are certain they won’t reopen when restrictions are eased.

Oakes said tourism and hospitality sectors, including restaurants, aren’t receiving enough support from the government.

“We can’t do everything for everyone, but there are certain sectors that we have to pay attention to,” she said, noting more money needs to get into the pockets of business owners so they can pay rent for the month of May.

Foster said the federal program that will subsidize 75 per cent of wages would be fine for businesses that still have income flowing in, but for the restaurants and businesses that have had to stay closed, that wage subsidy program — which requires businesses to supply 25 per cent — isn’t feasible without that income flow.

Buying local is a critical component in keeping local businesses from permanent closure, but Foster said he recognizes the struggle for families to support local when they too faced job or income loss.

It’s a challenge for folks who go into the store and have five kids and can buy an apple from Washington State for a fraction of the cost of a B.C. apple, Foster said.

But he urged: “When you get back to work, spend that extra 50-cents.”

Non-profits are also hard hit.

Foster said he’s reached out to several organizations in the North Okanagan and many have voiced their concerns about the next few months.

“They have government programs that continue to be funded but they have to fundraise for extra programming,” Foster said, but those fundraisers have had to be cancelled following provincial health orders.

Normally, the biggest supporters of non-profits are small businesses, Foster said.

“It’d be really hard to go to a local restaurant for a gift card while they haven’t been open for the past month and a half,” he said.

Oakes suggested non-profits reach out to local media to share their stories. If a business can’t support a fundraising effort, perhaps someone from within the community can support the cause, she said.

The Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce will be hosting a Q-and-A with North Okanagan-Shuswap Member of Parliament Mel Arnold Thursday, April 30.

READ MORE: ‘We’re winning, but we haven’t won yet,’ Vernon-Monashee MLA on COVID-19

READ MORE: Reservists sequestered at Vernon Army Camp


@caitleerach
Caitlin.clow@vernonmorningstar.com

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