Phase 1 of the Province’s relaunch has business support agencies scrambling to help those who have reopened their doors, and those who are still waiting for the chance.
Jayme Hall, executive director of the Okotoks and District Chamber of Commerce, said the demand for assistance and supports from his office hasn’t stopped since the pandemic struck in March.
“Now there’s lots of questions, trying to figure it out, trying to navigate it, figuring out how we can best support and where we can be best utilized is an interesting component,” said Hall.
Over the past two months the chamber has changed it focus from advocacy and policy to guidance and support, including weekly webinars on a variety of topics, often led by owners of businesses or services. In addition, Touchbase Tuesdays calls every week at 4 p.m. have seen anywhere from six to 30 people log in, and have been successful in providing information and networking, he said.
“Education is a huge component of our work right now,” said Hall. “We’ve got a great level of engagement and of bringing business together, which is part of our mandate even though it looks different right now.”
The chamber will be collecting data from surveys that have circulated from the Foothills Business Recovery Taskforce and the Town of Okotoks’ economic development department and creating recommendations based on that feedback to bring before Okotoks council at its June meeting, he said.
He said so far businesses have been excited to reopen, though there has been some anxiety around having proper personal protective equipment and procedures in place to maintain physical distancing and keep staff and customers safe. Some are still unsure of how the cost of PPE and other measures will affect the bottom line, he said.
“There’s just been a lot of stages of emotions that comes with the relaunch,” said Hall. “I think there’s a little fear – there’s all these rumours and people keep talking about a second wave, so what does that mean?”
“If you open up your business and then something happens and someone comes in who’s sick and they don’t know they’re sick and then they infect three other people and your business is the cause of this outbreak or wave in your area – that would be devastating to any business.”
He said Okotoks businesses have taken the proper precautions and encouraging hand-hygiene and masks where necessary, which is encouraging.
Whether owners have chosen to open right away or wait out more time, he said the chamber continues to support business with promotion and providing resources.
Similarly, the Town of Okotoks has been watching the relaunch to see where it best fits in as an advocate for business in the community.
Angela Groeneveld, economic development manager for the Town, said the hardest part for many business owners and Town employees alike has been the expectation of local government to execute Provincial mandates.
She said the best way to get information is on the Town’s business support page on the website, or from Alberta Biz Connect, a site maintained by the Province with information on the relaunch strategy and how to being reopening.
Even with those supports in place, she said the elephant in the room is money.
“There’s definitely a gap for business owners right now,” said Groeneveld. “Loans are not the answer to recovering business communities, it’s the grants. Is there a way, somehow, is there free money available for these business owners?”
She said it’s unclear who’s role that is to fill – the federal or provincial government, or the private sector.
With additional costs for PPE and other tools necessary post-COVID, she said business owners are facing tougher times even with their doors open.
“It’s all at their own cost, and they have new restrictions on them that affect their cash flow, but there’s no guarantee the cash flow is coming in, so they’re very vulnerable right now,” said Groeneveld.
Despite some of the worry out in the business community, she said there’s a buzz around town and most owners are excited to be seeing customers in their stores again.
The Town is currently producing a video to highlight places that are open for business, which she said should be released the last week of May. It will kick off a new Shop Local campaign the municipality intends to roll out over the next month, she said.
“We’ll be marketing all the businesses in the community and our goal for that is that we’ll market all the businesses in the community, whether they’re open or not, because a lot of them that are in Phase 2 and Phase 3 are still open, they’re just open in different ways like curbside,” said Groeneveld. “That’s a very innovate marketing tool that will be coming out over the next month.
“But ultimately it comes down to the people, to the community, and people spending money in our local businesses. Shopping local has never been more important.”
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