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What you need to know about COVID-19: October 9, 2020
Many downtown businesses in Atlantic Canada are feeling the financial pinch of lost revenue with more people working from home as a result of COVID-19.
And with that trend expected to continue into the fall, businesses are looking for additional ways to generate revenue.
One downtown business in Charlottetown that is seeing less foot traffic this summer is Juice Co.
"We're down quite a bit downtown from where we should be year-over-year. We would be about half of what we're normally at," said Robi Hughes, who co-owns the business with his wife, Sharie.
The couple have a downtown location at 133 Queen St. and another location outside of the downtown core on University Avenue.
The business is a popular spot for the downtown lunch crowd, and offers customers a variety healthy food items, including wraps, paninis, salads, juices and smoothies.
"We are finding that a lot of Islanders are getting out and trying to support as much as they can. But even with that, it's difficult when you take away the working crowd, plus you take away the tourists. When the bubble opened up, there are a few more around but it's not significant from our perspective," he said.
Many businesses in the city still have employees working from home, or are operating with reduced staff and hours. Last month, an Angus Reid Institute survey showed that nearly two-thirds of Canadians working from home will likely continue to do so in some capacity once COVID-19 conditions subside. In particular, 20 per cent said they would likely not go back to the office while only 36 per cent said they will likely go back. Forty-four per cent said they will split time between the office and home.
The P.E.I. government's Public Administration Complex on Rochford Street, which contains the Shaw, Sullivan and Jones buildings, is bucking this trend. Of its roughly 950 employees, only about 33 per cent are still working from home.
The same can't be said for one of Charlottetown's largest employers, Veterans Affairs Canada, which has about 1,500 employees based out of its downtown offices. A spokesperson with VAC didn't know specifically how many Charlottetown employees are working from home, but he did say that the department has a total of 3,400 employees in Canada, and 3,200 of those are working from home. He also didn't provide specific details about employees returning back to the offices full-time, but he did say that the department is working with health officials to make sure the gradual return to the offices is done safely.
Even with more people returning downtown, businesses in tourism and hospitality are still facing challenges since a lot of tourism dollars come from Quebec, Ontario and the eastern United States, who are not part of the Atlantic bubble. Cruise ship travel has also been cancelled for the season.
The impact of less foot traffic on downtown businesses isn't unique to Charlottetown.
Patrick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, said he's starting to see more business people going back to the office, but the transition back is slow. More people working from home is especially concerning for downtown restaurants, who rely on the lunch crowd and evening diners.
Sullivan also expects to see more people back in the workplace now that Nova Scotia and P.E.I. have back to school plans in place for the fall. In the meantime, he is advising downtown business owners to take full advantage of all the available provincial and federal government programs.
"Even if you don't necessarily need the money right now, put the cash in your bank account for the future," he said. Sullivan is also advising that businesses continue to limit expenses.
For people working from home, Sullivan is encouraging them to still order take-out meals once in a while, and make the trip downtown for lunch or dinner a couple times of week.
Juice Co. has been accessing federal government programs, such as the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance Program (CECRA) and the wage subsidy program, which has been extended to December.
With the CECRA program, Hughes said both of his landlords were supportive of the applications.
"I think they realize we both need to come out of this strong in order to continue on," he said.
Interestingly, Hughes is seeing an upward trend at the University Avenue location with more people using the drive-thru.
Even so, like many businesses, Hughes is concerned about the ongoing uncertainty of COVID-19 as the fall approaches.
With that in mind, Hughes has a few ideas about how to supplement lower downtown foot traffic into the fall. When businesses were closed, he was involved with Skip the Dishes home deliveries, and he expects to resume using this service as well as pick-up orders. He is also looking at catering and possibly getting involved with school lunch programs.
"The concern is once we get past this period and into the late fall, early in the new year when the weather is poor downtown, that's when it will be really challenging and we'll have to have some plans in place to get through that," he said.
"I think most businesses are trying to get through this time and get to the other end hoping that tourism will pick up in 2021. Everybody kind of realizes that 2020 is a write off in that area."