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Restaurants need help, chamber president says

The provincial government needs to come to the aid of restaurants and pubs hit by the three-week ban on indoor dining and drinking, says Prince George Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Corrigall.
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The provincial government needs to come to the aid of restaurants and pubs hit by the three-week ban on indoor dining and drinking, says Prince George Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Corrigall.

He said the provincial government missed an opportunity to make a "counter announcement" to help businesses that will be affected by the order provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry issued Monday.

"I think it would have been quite simple for the government to announce a restaurant, food service, bar industry grant program yesterday - that could have been rolled out, at least mitigating lease costs during that three week period," Corrigall said. 

Takeout and delivery services and dining on outdoor patios is still allowed but B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association Ian Tostenson said it won't be enough to make up for the hit the ban on indoor dining will bring.

"But we've got the back of Dr. Henry. This is going to take the collective will of all British Columbians," Tostenson told The Canadian Press.

He said restaurants have been following B.C.'s health orders to provide safe service to customers, but COVID-19 infection rates among young staff members have been a concern, as has the virus's growth rates for young people provincially.

Despite some hiccups along the way, Corrigall said Chamber members have been generally happy with the programs the federal government have rolled out to help cash-strapped businesses through the pandemic.

"But when we look on the municipal and provincial side, we're not seeing tremendous output when it does come to business supports and what does come seems to be maybe a little bit haphazard and not fully formed," he said.

Corrigall is among those critical of the provincial government's program to aid small and medium size businesses. As of a few weeks ago, just $56 million or so of a $300 million program had been distributed, he said, and added that while there have been improvements, the application process remains onerous.

A reluctance by a lot of businesses to seek loans and grants has also not helped, he said, so that when they do look for help, "sometimes it's a pinch too late for the speed at which the bureaucracy moves."

As for the City, Corrigall raised the possibility of closing off streets and let restaurants and pubs push their patios out onto the sidewalks and streets. 

"We saw Valemount council last year turn some of their parking lots into licenced patios for their restaurants, they opened up this vast space for them to occupy," he said. "We've seen downtown (Prince George) closed down for much smaller issues and work."

The BC Liberals, meanwhile, called on the NDP government to immediately ramp up supports for struggling small businesses. Among the steps, they say should be taking is to provide immediate financial support to restaurants hit with sudden costs due to lost perishable inventory as a result of the latest health orders.

“How could they not have supports in place, knowing they were about to put so many British Columbians out of work for at least three weeks?," interim leader Shirley Bond said in a statement. "The lack of care for people’s livelihoods, especially for those aged 20 to 39 in the service industry who are being blamed for the third wave by John Horgan, is unacceptable.”

On Tuesday, the provincial government did announce help for privately-run inter-city bus services and regional airports as authorities urged British Columbians to refrain from traveling between communities except for medical or work-related reasons.

It said Adventure Charters InterCity Bus, which provides twice-weekly service between Prince George, Kamloops and the Lower Mainland, has been approved for just under $128,000.

Owner Jenna Gertzen welcomed the news. She said Adventure Charters has seen dramatic decline in ridership due to the pandemic.

"This funding will allow us to confidently operate for the coming months as the Province continues to move towards the day when travel once again becomes about adventure and exploration rather then necessity," Gertzen said in an email.

Prince George Airport, meanwhile, is to receive $720,000. CEO Gordon Duke was not available for comment on Tuesday.

- with files from The Canadian Press