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Better late than never, but why late at all?

Rob Shaw: BC businesses shut down by pandemic orders spent two anxious days waiting to hear about aid.

BC businesses forced to shut down due to new public health restrictions spent two anxious days waiting to hear from the provincial government on financial aid, and may spend weeks longer before any actual money arrives.

Economic Recovery Minister Ravi Kahlon announced the $10-million “COVID-19 Closure Relief Grant” on Dec. 23, which will provide non-repayable grants of up to $10,000 for gyms, fitness centres, bars, nightclubs, and conference centres ordered closed under health orders designed to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant during the next four weeks.

“Help is on the way,” Kahlon said at a news conference.

“We understand that the news on the orders and the timing is incredibly challenging. At the same time, we must quickly respond to what we need to do to best protect British Columbians.

“We cannot leave Omicron unchecked. We will continue to listen and learn and respond to the evolving situation. This grant is one way to directly help through this difficult time.”

It’s easy to criticize the government program — it doesn’t start accepting applications until January, there’s no clear timelines to pay out the funds, and other businesses forced to reduce to 50 per cent capacity (theatres, cinemas and sporting events to name a few) aren’t eligible.

Still, in other ways, given the extraordinary speed with which Omicron is changing the world, the aid package also makes sense.

Government piggybacked off previous COVID grant programs to quickly get this one up and running, using the same employee and revenue-based criteria to determine the size of the grant. It’s promising to “streamline” businesses that have applied for previous aid using the financial information government already has on file. That includes 1,100 gyms, which stand to be the hardest hit under the restrictions.

“We expect businesses will get their money quite fast because they’ve already been in the system,” said Kahlon.

The grant money comes with few strings and can be spent on whatever a business needs, including rent, payroll, insurance, maintenance or spoiled food and supplies. This hands-off aspect from the province was one thing businesses appreciated about the previous Circuit Breaker grants as well.

Even with the aid, the restrictions during the holiday season are a gut-punch to many business owners, two years into the pandemic. They are left reeling by the loss of income during one of the busiest times of year because the government rules scrap holiday parties, wedding receptions, New Years gatherings and gym memberships given as part of New Years resolutions.

The ripple effect will be severe at one of the most expensive times of year, with employees losing shifts or even their jobs during the holidays.

The financial aid should have been announced as part of the provincial health restrictions Dec. 21, to provide assurances to anxious and panicked people. That delay left the BC NDP open to criticism.

“It’s simply astounding how the NDP has once again introduced restrictions with no corresponding supports in place for affected businesses,” said Opposition BC Liberal MLA Todd Stone.

“Businesses were promised there would be no new restrictions put in place before Christmas, but now they are being dealt another unexpected blow without the financial supports they and their staff will need to get through the holidays.”

On the bright side, the federal government moved quickly to put in larger, more expensive, economic aid packages immediately. It was out of the gate with $4 billion in expanded financial programs announced Dec. 22.

The “Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit” will give $300 per week to employees who lose work due to their businesses being shut or reduced to 50 per cent capacity by provincial rules. It should be more. But at least it’s something immediate.

The “Local Lockdown Program” sees Ottawa provide grants to businesses to subsidize 25 to 75 per cent of an employee’s wage if that business suffers a revenue loss of more than 25 per cent due to government restrictions. The goal here is to incentivize business owners from laying off staff.

The programs are not perfect. New businesses that just started recently will likely fall through the cracks. And the speed of actually delivering the financial assistance to a person’s bank account has always been an issue.

Still, the two levels of aid provide at least some supports for the holiday season. BC’s goal, as it should be, is to fill in the gaps from the larger programs offered by Ottawa.

The Omicron variant has taught us that the province should keep its COVID-19 financial aid programs permanently open and staffed, with money set aside in the budget, so they can be immediately re-activated. This could be necessary if Omicron worsens into 2022 and requires the shutdown of even more businesses. Or, it could be a good precaution for the next variant, whatever and whenever that may be.

Kahlon seems to have taken that to heart with this latest wave.

“We have structured the program in a way that it can be expanded if it needs to be,” he said.

“It will be nimble enough to adapt when going forward.”

At this point, that’s pretty much all you can hope for as the world fights an Omicron variant that may get worse before it gets better.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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