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Changes to COVID relief programs welcomed in Whistler

Extensions a ‘huge win,’ but more advocacy needed, says Whistler Chamber
covid relief
Coronavirus relief programs have made a huge difference for businesses in Whistler, but there is more work to be done to ensure the support continues, according to the Whistler Chamber.

While all Whistler businesses have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year, some in certain industries, like travel providers, were hit harder than others.

In the case of Whistler Connection, last spring’s border closures led to an immediate 90-per-cent drop in revenue. 

With a majority of its business—shuttles to and from the airport—evaporated, the company transitioned into a local delivery service, and opened its wash bay as a car wash and detailing service.

While the creativity (and some sound financial positioning pre-pandemic) helped the company retain key staff, Whistler Connection has also benefited from the bevy of relief programs floated by provincial and federal governments, said general manager Dan Harmon.

“Overwhelmingly, I’m grateful for the level of support that the federal and provincial government has offered to small business. We’re incredibly fortunate to live here and be in a country that has taken this kind of stuff seriously,” Harmon said.

“They’re pretty key to our continued survival.” 

News that key relief programs for businesses—the provincial business recovery grant and the federal wage and rent subsidies—are being expanded and refined is welcomed in Whistler, but the advocacy work is not finished, said Melissa Pace, CEO of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce. 

“It’s great news, but from speaking with some of our members, doors open does not equal financial success,” Pace said. 

“So these programs are vital to keeping doors open, but it’s also coming at a potential debt load which is not sustainable for most.”

With that in mind, the local chamber is advocating for the federal rent and wage subsidies (both extended to June on March 3) to be further extended “until such a time that businesses are well into recovery,” Pace said. 

On the provincial recovery grant, news that businesses now have until Aug. 31 to apply (and can qualify with just a 30-per-cent revenue drop, rather than 70 per cent) is a “huge win,” Pace added. 

“The government has been great … they’re responding in a way that they are hearing us,” she said.

“So there is a thank you there to the governments for doing what they’re doing. [But] there needs to be more, and we just have to keep pushing.”

While the government supports are appreciated (and the Chamber an excellent resource for local businesses trying to navigate them), businesses would also benefit from more clarity and lead time moving forward, Harmon said, noting that at some points last year, employers were getting information on relief programs after the fact.

“I would just have them publish information four weeks ahead of time … just to give us a little bit of a buffer for planning,” he said, adding that the uncertainty is stressful for employers and workers alike.

But despite the challenging year in the rearview mirror, and the challenges still to come, there have been positives in the chaos, too, he added. 

“The community of small business owners and managers here has been really helpful, and heartening through the whole process. There’s been good communication between different industries, even between traditional competitors, and there’s a common sense of purpose that we all want to try and help each other get through this and come out the other side,” Harmon said.

“So I think that’s been a really positive element to all of this.”