The restaurant sector took the greatest advantage of many provincial grant programs through the COVID-19 pandemic, but challenges for the industry remain as the province removed the last traces of the COVID-19 protection order Tuesday.
“That was definitely beneficial for restaurant owners during the pandemic,” said Natasha Chestnut, the executive director of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia.
“The big thing right now is that there are still a lot of financial pressures on restaurant owners. Expenses nationally have been up about 30 per cent, which is pretty big.”
On Tuesday the province lifted the Health Protection Act Order, although there have been no restrictions on small businesses for months.
The province announced three rounds of small business impact grants over 2020 and 2021. The first two were administered by Dalhousie University, and distributed $9.7 million and $11.7 million respectively.
The third round of grants was administered by the department of economic development, and distributed $30.5 million to more than 3,800 applicants, according to an assessment released to CBC by the Department of Economic Development.
Grants given in the three rounds were worth up to $5,000, although some businesses said because eligibility was based on their revenues they only qualified for a lesser amount. Businesses that took part in the first two rounds were eligible for the third round.
In the third round of grants, restaurants received approximately 33 per cent of the grant dollars. Personal services businesses like hair salons and barber shops got about a quarter of the money. Grants also went to independent shops, gyms and fitness facilities, bars, and live performing arts.
The province also announced different types of business support programs at other times, such as grants to help businesses through the Omicron wave.
Leaning on the federal government
“It did help some businesses, but there’s definitely a big swath of businesses in Nova Scotia that needed some extra support and they often leaned to the federal government for their support programs,” said Duncan Robertson, a policy analyst with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business of the provincial grant program.
The CFIB is currently surveying its members across the country for their opinions on pandemic business support, with about a week left to gather responses. So far Robertson said the CFIB has gathered 74 responses in Nova Scotia, and he expects more to come in. There are 4,000 CFIB members in Nova Scotia.
Robertson says so far the survey suggests about a third of the Nova Scotia respondents didn’t apply to the provincial grants. Roughly one-third said it was helpful, and a quarter said it wasn’t. A small group said they weren’t sure.
“It’s definitely a long road to recovery,” Robertson said. About half of the CFIB respondents said they have below-normal sales, and they’re still paying back pandemic debts which averaged around $102,000.
Concern about loans
Another concern for many small businesses is the federal Canada Emergency Business Account loan, which offered interest-free loans of up to $60,000, starting in 2020. The deadline to pay back those loans is this December.
“That will be quite challenging for a lot of operators as well, to be able to pay that back in the timeline that has been provided,” said Chestnut, executive director of the restaurant association.
Earlier this year the Crown corporation responsible for administering CEBA reported only 13 per cent of businesses had repaid the loan in full so far.