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COVID-19 worries are starting to ease for some businesses in Canada

Screen Shot 2020-04-28 at 12.42.08 PMWhen COVID-19 started sweeping across Canada, Pete and Chris Neal swung into action, splitting the workers at their Richmond Hill, Ont.-based snack food production business into two teams to help stop the pandemic’s spread.

They also offered lunches for Neal Brothers Foods staff and arranged Uber rides for anyone concerned about using public transit, but the brothers were always fretting about how the pandemic would impact them next.

“I was worried that stores would start closing and because there was this crazy hoarding, it would put a stress on our supply chain, which is very precarious,” said Pete Neal.

It’s only now, roughly a month into the pandemic, that some of his worries have finally been assuaged as hefty orders from supermarkets continue to come in.

The emotional shift Pete experienced comes as many businesses are starting to see some of their burdens eased.

Some, who pivoted to providing new services or launched curbside pickup or delivery options, have grown comfortable with the evolving additions to their product lines and processes.

Others have more clarity around what government subsidies are available. Some business owners already have that money in hand, helping them avoid immediate layoffs or closing their doors for good.

“They have figured out what are they going to do and what they need to do to go through this crisis,” said Pierre Cleroux, the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC)’s chief economist.

“I think it’s a bit more clear in their heads how they’re going to get through this very difficult period.”

A BDC survey of more than 900 entrepreneurs conducted online between April 14 and 16 revealed 79% of Canadian entrepreneurs are “very worried” about the pandemic’s impact on their business.

That’s down from 83% who reported that level of worry two weeks prior to the latest survey, but on par with the 79% who were fretting when physical distancing was implemented a month ago.

The survey also shows more entrepreneurs are worried about the Canadian economy than they are about their own business.

According to the polling industry’s generally accepted standards, online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population.

Cleroux was surprised to see the slight dip in “very worried” entrepreneurs because many are still grappling with layoffs, contemplating insolvencies and figuring out how to deal with sinking demand for their products and services.

“We’ve never experienced something like that before. It’s very hard to understand what will happen,” Cleroux said.

“Are consumers going to go back, are businesses going to invest and is the economy going to recover quickly or not? There’s a lot of worry.”

Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said what BDC found is a “very modest” reduction in the level of panic.

“It wouldn’t surprise me that there’s been a levelling off of that just as there has been a levelling off of the virus itself,” said Kelly, who represents 110,000 small and medium businesses across the country.

The first weeks of the pandemic and physical distancing brought about mass uncertainty because people didn’t know how long COVID-19 would last, how deep it would cut and how much government help they would get.

Entrepreneurs are still worried, Kelly said, but now they know a lot more about the new needs of their consumers and what supports are open to them.

Some are feeling better amid signs that the number of COVID-19 cases in Canada is plateauing. Politicians and public health officials are starting to plan for reopening elements of the economy.

But that doesn’t mean small business owners are free from the stresses of COVID-19, Kelly said.

“In ordinary times we get 50 calls a day from business owners, and that is now 800 to 1000,” he said.

“A lot of the questions that we’re getting are related to the various programs (from the government and its agencies) and people that are slipping through the cracks of many of the programs that are there.”

Kelly has found service providers such as nail salons or barbers tend to be the hardest hit, as well as microsized businesses. For them and many other struggling businesses, there has been no drop in worry, he said.

“They are the ones we are hearing from the loudest,” Kelly said. “They are unfortunately not getting access to the very good support programs that are designed for businesses.”


Newfoundland minister says food supply safe after shipping company raises concerns

A provincial cabinet minister is advising Newfoundlanders and Labradorians not to panic buy groceries after a major shipping company suggested shipments to Newfoundland could be reduced due to the pandemic.

Sid Hynes, chairman of shipping company Oceanex, told CBC Monday that weekly deliveries of food and other supplies to St. John’s may be affected without a federal subsidy to cover his company’s losses.

He said Oceanex is about $2 million short of its required weekly operating costs due to the pandemic.

On Tuesday, provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons posted on Twitter that the situation is not as dire as reported, and Crown corporation Marine Atlantic can handle increased cargo.

Parsons wrote there is no need for hoarding or fear because of the news.

Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie, who leads the official Opposition, says federal and provincial governments should outline their plans to ensure a secure supply chain of food to the island.

Grocery carts phone

Bare store shelves, long lines amid coronavirus stockpiling

When Harmony Samra went to her local No Frills Thursday afternoon in Toronto to pick up some food, she wasn’t prepared for the chaos inside, where customers were filling multiple carts seemingly with anything they could grab off the shelves.

Grocery shoppers across Canada face long lines and empty shelves at some stores as the novel coronavirus outbreak promptsprompted people to stock up on toilet paper, cleaning products and other supplies. Social media users are sharing photos and videos of closed entrances to manage crowds, bare shelves and massive check-out lines.

“Yesterday was just panic,” said Samra of her experience around 2 p.m. Thursday.

She waited about 10 minutes in the parking lot to find a spot and, once inside, had to search for a shopping cart.

“People were literally everywhere,” she said, with people in groups shopping with two or three full carts.

There was no toilet paper in the store. It was nearly out of pasta and most cleaning products, she said, and staff would roll out skids filled with goods from the back to keep supplies up.

Initially, Samra planned to pick up a few small things, but her plans changed when she saw the situation.

“When I saw everybody else stocking up, I’m like, ‘OK, maybe I’ll buy an extra couple packs of pasta myself, just in case.’ You never know. So I ended up stocking up more.”

Getting through check out was also an ordeal.

“The line up just continued to grow,” she said.

Samra has heard similar stories from her friends. One told her they attempted to visit the same Toronto store Friday morning and there was a line formed before it even opened.

Another Toronto No Frills posted a sign Thursday explaining it had closed one of its entrances and will only be allowing in a limited number of shoppers at a time.

“Due to the unforeseen over-flow of customers we are controlling the number of people coming in to the store,” it read.

Lisa Campbell, who spends time in Toronto and Calgary, has been ordering food rather than face grocery shopping. But, she said she’s worried about the situation in Alberta, where some grocery stores struggled to keep shelves stocked before coronavirus panic-buying began.

She saw bare shelves at a northern Alberta grocery store for the first time recently.

“I think that stress here is compounded with the recession. It’s like a double whammy in Alberta right now on top of so many other issues.”

She heard from someone recently about a Calgary Costco sold out of meat products.

A staff member also sent her photos of their local grocery store with a nearly empty produce section, and other empty shelves as well.

Loblaw Companies Ltd., which owns the No Frills brand and other major grocery chains, declined to respond to questions about whether any of its brands are placing limits on the numbers of certain products, such as toilet paper, that customers can buy, and whether it has noticed a spike in sales of any products. It also did not answer questions about whether it provides grocery store employees with paid sick leave and how much.

A spokeswoman did say in an email that stores are not increasing prices. Some social media users have complained of allegedly hiked prices on toilet paper and hand sanitizer at Loblaw’s Shoppers Drug Mart chain.

In lieu of answering questions, the company sent a letter from CEO Galen Weston to its loyalty program members.

The company expects its stores and pharmacies to remain open, he said, and is “introducing safeguards” to ensure staff won’t lose pay for coronavirus-related absences.

He noted many Canadians are turning to online shopping and delivery options amid fears of going into public spaces, and said the company is eliminating pick-up fees for click-and-collect orders and reducing prices of delivery items.

He acknowledges “some items will be sold out” in stores and said Loblaw has “assigned an entire team to the challenge of rapidly re-stocking key food, health, cleaning and comfort items.”

Metro Inc. also did not respond to questions.

Sobey’s is not placing limits on any products outside of regular promotional activity through its flyers, spokeswoman Jacquelin Weatherbee said in an email.

“We are not implementing any further product limits outside of promotional activity,” she said, noting the company has seen a lift in sales in certain categories. That bump started February 28 and accelerated March 8.

“We saw overall elevated sales increases clearly attributable to public concerns surrounding coronavirus.”

Sobey’s customers are increasingly purchasing non-perishables, such as household cleaning supplies, paper products, and canned and packaged health foods, she said. The company is also asking all sick employees to stay home and offers a sick benefits program.

Suppliers also seem to be seeing an increase in sales.

“But it’s not a 100-per-cent dramatic lift, where we are selling out of our products on the floor,” said Steve Bamford of Fresh Advancements Inc., an importer and wholesaler of fresh produce.

“We haven’t increased any of our prices or seen any shortages of product,” he said.

People shouldn’t panic because Canada’s food producers are suplied enough supply to handle the situation, he said.

He’s not ordering or bringing in extra product because he figures the food situation will balance itself out between people at grocery stores stockpiling and venues being closed or restaurants sitting empty.

When Bamford, whose family has been in the wholesale produce business for 139 years, first heard about COVID-19 he was worried about the health and safety of employees and business interruptions, so he paid close attention to how China and Italy were handling their food situations.

Food, he said, was deemed essential by the Italian government, helping the wholesale market there.

Workers at the Ontario Food Terminal in Etobicoke, Ont.- the largest fruit and distribution centre in the country – are being reminded to limit contact by keeping distance between them, wash their hands regularly, use hand sanitizer and practice good hygiene.