2020-03-18 - Supporting Business During the COVID-19 Crisis

It seems like a lifetime ago when New Brunswick’s Finance Minister Ernie Steeves delivered his government’s second budget last week. Since then, the world’s attention has fully (and appropriately) turned toward the COVID-19 crisis, flattening the curve as well as changing our behaviour and routines for the good of society. Indeed, many of the financial assumptions and growth projections in the document are likely to be impacted by the economic fallout from the virus, but the budget itself contains policy decisions that shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle – especially after the budget was passed late last week. 

We congratulate and thank all of NB’s elected parties for their unprecedented cooperation in the legislative assembly over the past two weeks. March 17th’s decision to delay municipal elections scheduled for early May was the right call by all provincial parties and will allow for continuity in local leadership as we navigate this crisis. A few days earlier, the parties cooperated to pass the 2020-21 provincial budget. The certainty that these cooperative efforts brought to the province’s political and economic landscape was much needed as this crisis unfolds and expands. We understand that not all MLAs (or indeed, New Brunswickers) supported the 2020-21 budget as presented, but allowing it to pass unanimously was a relief to many and gave confidence that our leaders are putting people before politics. 

As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, the importance of our governments’ ability to maintain financial flexibility will become more and more apparent. Individuals and businesses will need more direct government support in the coming weeks and months. So far, the federal government has announced $27 billion in direct support to individuals and businesses, $55 billion is eligible income tax deferrals and an additional $10 billion fund available to small businesses. These are positive first steps and we look forward to further details, but by the Prime Minister’s own admission, government expects to have to provide more support as the situation unfolds and they better understand the full economic impact of COVID-19. Small businesses are counting on it, as many of them will see their business essentially or literally shut down for weeks or months – a loan isn’t going to help many of them survive. They can never replace the lost revenue, and margins are such that many of our favourite small local businesses may not recover.  We will look to our leaders both provincially and federally to provide support for these businesses to help them weather this unexpected and fiscally challenging global storm  

The Fredericton chamber and the entire chamber network has been hard at work on behalf of our members and the business community generally. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has been working for several weeks with other national groups, including labour and government to plan and coordinate on communications to ensure a unified message is received by people across the country. We are thankful for their leadership and will continue to work closely with them to bring the best and most up-to-date information available. 

Our organization is trying to do our part for community health and wellness. As initial steps, we have cancelled all of our scheduled events through the end of April, are only participating in meetings via electronic means and have asked staff to work remotely for at least the next two weeks. We are a people-based, networking-focused organization, but we take our position as community leaders very seriously and have been heartened to see other groups and individuals do the same. We are fortunate that the nature of our operation allows us to be able to take these steps however, we recognize that many of our small businesses do not have this ability and our hearts are breaking with many of them having to close their doors. The Chamber is dedicated to helping them overcome this challenge. For those still operational, we applaud the creative means by which they are keeping their doors open, enforcing social distancing measures implementing strong precautionary sanitation measures. The better we all do our individual part – in whatever way we can – by following the calm and practical advice of Chief Medical Officer Dr Jennifer Russell – the more effective our collective response will be. 

The fact of the matter is that no one is exactly sure how this crisis will grow, evolve and eventually settle. But we do know that the actions we take now will have an impact on how the crisis turns out. It is incumbent on all of us to follow the advice of medical experts and elected officials in order to minimize the impact of COVID-19. This will mean hardship for many, including small businesses. 

Business owners are nervous. Nervous for their families and for their employees and incredibly anxious about the impacts on their business. No question that the current priority is dealing with the virus and working together to protect each other – especially our most vulnerable, but we need to think about how our daily lives are going to look on the other side. So please support our local businesses however you can: buy gift certificates, order take out, participate in online yoga and zumba classes being offered as an alternative… and reach out to your favourite small business and ask them what they need. Shopping locally and supporting your neighbour will now be more important than ever. 

Krista Ross is CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, a nationally accredited organization with more than 1,000 members, is an active business organization engaged in policy development and advocacy that affects the competitiveness of our members and the Canadian business environment. The Chamber’s vision is ‘Stronger Community Through Business Prosperity’ 

**This commentary has been updated since it appeared in BNI publications on 18 March 2020.