Virtual town hall hears from Chilliwack business community on COVID impacts

Hospitality industry and ornamental greenhouse growers among those hit very hard

It was a “virtual” town hall meeting about businesses struggling in the face of COVID-19 with several of Chilliwack’s elected representatives on the call.

The idea was having a “true conversation” about the business economy in Chilliwack, according to the host of last week’s video call, Leanna Kemp, executive director of the Chilliwack Chamber of Commerce.

The Q&A session tackled business-related questions from economic recovery plans for Chilliwack, and the prospect of municipal tax relief, to deficit budgets, and what to do about business sectors that are falling through the cracks. The need for new e-commerce channels came up, as did the availability of interest-free loans for business.

Chilliwack-Kent MLA Laurie Throness said he’d been “inundated” with calls, and was glad for the town hall format to ask questions of local businesses, like what was their tolerance for a timeline in getting back to work.

“A natural disaster has befallen our community,” is how Throness described the impacts of COVID-19, adding that governments have been rising to the challenge.

Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon MP Mark Strahl said all parties in the House of Commons have been working together on federal programs to ensure that businesses and individuals are supported during the pandemic.

The MP’s role, and that of his staff, he stressed, is providing assistance and helping folks navigate the various federal emergency programs at a time when everyone is facing “an unprecedented downfall due to no fault of their own.”

Strahl offered his contact information.

“Please reach out to my office at mark.strahl@parl.gc.ca or 604.847.9711 and we’ll be happy to work with you.”

All the key online info is at markstrahl.com as well, the MP said, for questions about the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) or Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS).

Chilliwack MLA John Martin described Chilliwack businesses as undergoing the “most challenging times imaginable” since the pandemic hit. He noted that a recent survey showed that 40 per cent of small businesses don’t think they’ll be re-opening.

“So it’s reached critical mass out there,” Martin said, adding that he and his colleagues at the legislature are working from home, and helping constituents, responding to calls and emails.

One of the first questions had to do with Chilliwack “economic recovery” and what it might look like down the line.

MLA Throness explained with with timelines so fluid and so many questions, there is “no Chilliwack plan” specifically, or a provincial one for that matter.

Mayor Ken Popove said there have been some “preliminary talks” between City of Chilliwack, CEPCO and others, but nothing concrete has emerged yet.

MP Strahl noted that “we need to plan for” recovery at the local level, and the source of that guidance comes from watch “the must-see-TV” that is Dr. Bonny Henry’s daily report has become.

Mid-May has been discussed provincially as the time to start “gradually” lifting restrictions, Strahl said.

But it might require ramping up testing capacity, testing more people, and more sophisticated contact tracing, which have become “generally accepted for what it’s going to take,” Strahl pointed out.

”The question is going to be how are we going to be operating with COVID-19, not after COVID. This isn’t about after.”

Throness pointed out that high risk businesses won’t be re-opening this year, but low-risk businesses will, and said the question for some will be, ‘how to become low risk to open sooner rather than later.’

The topic of future taxation levels and deficit budgets had MP Strahl stating the predicted $200 billion federal deficit was 10 times what was originally predicted.

“So it will take a medium to long-term strategy to be paying that back,” Strahl said. That means there will be “no short-term return to balanced budgets” on the federal side of things, the MP said.

MLA Martin said the impact of COVID-19 on the economy will be much harder hitting than the 2008 global financial crash.

Asked if City of Chilliwack was planning any property tax relief for residential or commercial land owners, and Mayor Popove said the “answer is yes,” and said details would be forthcoming.

One of the submitted Q&A questions was about businesses falling through the cracks: “Do any of you see any major portion of our business community not getting appropriate support and if so, what are the plans for those businesses?”

MP Strahl said they’ve identified “ornamental greenhouse growers” as having been impacted negatively, with tens of millions worth of product they had planned to sell, with many contracts cancelled and garden centres closed.

“It’s a time limited product that you can’t just warehouse,” Strahl said, adding that is the danger for some of these programs, can businesses survive in the face of zero revenues, and how can they sustain that loss.

“Some are in really tough situations,” the MP said. “They trying to avoid falling through those cracks.”

MLA Martin mentioned the hospitality and service industry, where 85 per cent of those working in restaurants lost their jobs.

With such a tight profit margin, many will find it difficult to return in full capacity, and that sector in particular is in dire need of help, he said.

“Some are doing 40 per cent of what they used to do,” Martin said about takeout and delivery efforts, which may be the model for a while.

Several businesses also weighed in on what it would take to re-open, their ongoing challenges, and many said the provincial health officer would have to order it. Some said they would be phasing in a return very slowly and gradually.

In terms of the not-for-profit sector, Coun. Sue Knott, executive director of Chilliwack Hospice Society said people are “fearful” since the impacts of COVID are becoming obvious.

“A whole new strategy is going to be needed.”

Coun. Knott added: “Looking around, who is still working? It’s going to be hard.”

Event moderator Leanna Kemp noted that with so many events and fundraisers cancelled, “everyone’s giving model has been completely obliterated” and that incentives for charity giving might be needed. She told folks to stay tuned for more details coming soon.

READ MORE: Town hall meeting goes virtual

READ MORE: Chamber posting shop local updates


Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email:
jfeinberg@theprogress.com


@CHWKjourno
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