The Oak Street portion of Old Town looks barren most of the time now. (Photo by Don Bodger)

COVID-19: Small town small businesses strive to survive

The future of Chemainus shops still standing will depend on local support once the pandemic subsides

There’s no sense beating around the bush or trying to candy-coat it.

COVID-19 is already having a devastating effect on small businesses across Vancouver Island and will make long-term survival difficult to attain.

Take the case of Chemainus, a small town off the main highway, with a business community tied tightly to the summer tourism season.

“Without a doubt Chemainus is facing one of the hardest economic times in its recent history and there is no clear way through this crisis,” noted Krystal Adams, executive director of the Chemainus Business Improvement Association.

“We’re in a really tough economic place that businesses will not necessarily recover from. We will, without a doubt, see some of our beloved local businesses not reopen. It is a devastating fact small businesses all across B.C. and the globe are facing.”

RELATED: Sinking Vancouver Island small businesses say aid package too little, too late

Adams returned to her job of five years in November 2019 after being on maternity leave. At first, it was business as usual with planning for special events and promotions to take place throughout 2020.

That continued until Valentine’s Day in February before everything started to change. It went from looking forward to a busy tourist season ahead and straight into survival mode as mid-March rolled around, with no end to the COVID crisis in sight just yet.

“The modelling is showing that if we continue to self-isolate and distance, maybe in June most restrictions could be let up,” Adams explained. “But businesses have to cover rent and utilities for all these months along with the burden of no base income. Plus some have aging products or vendors requiring payments for goods they can’t or may not sell. It is a very difficult thing to be able to sustain.

“We also have to keep in mind this only works if we continue to follow distancing measures as they have recommended until mid-May. That’s why now we need to make substantial plans on how to get businesses back to servicing community needs in any capacity possible during this down time.”

Adams has considerable experience in helping businesses through difficult situations and is making sure everyone receives pertinent information to answer all questions and concerns.

“I’m used to doing crisis management planning, but not even close to this extent with a pandemic – no one is, this is new territory for all,” Adams indicated.

She emphasizes business people need to grow their knowledge, develop enhanced and different business exposure, and access any available funding and government programs.

“A lot of small businesses don’t qualify for some of the programs that are out there,” Adams pointed out. “It’s difficult to qualify for wage subsidies given the nature of community-based small businesses, and currently there is no rent relief available. Many businesses simply can’t take on additional debt which seems to be the basis of support the government is giving small businesses in the form of bank loans. Adding more debt to existing debt is not the answer.”

But all is not lost, “now is the time to focus on your business like you’ve never been able to,” she added, encouraging members to take this enforced breather as a sign of inward business reflection.

That means making business messages as strong as humanly possible through messaging and websites.

“We are sharing industry knowledge on how to modulate to an online business model, help you improve your business goals and branding, plus identify opportunities to create more visibility,” Adams noted in a message to CBIA members.

Several initiatives have been planned, along with supplying information about some local and fundamental reference resources.

RELATED: Nanaimo merchants struggle to find a new ‘business as usual’ during COVID-19 pandemic

Chemainus has many popular restaurants and cafes that are venturing into unfamiliar territory by concentrating solely on takeout food service and struggling to make it work. The problem for many based on a variable number of customers is how much food to bring in and not be left with a lot of waste.

Buying takeout is one way to keep the local economy going to a certain extent and there are other ways to provide a boost.

“We have to help sustain them now and it doesn’t even have to be financially,” said Adams.

Such things as going onto Facebook or Google and leaving a review and a message about how wonderful the services of a business are can make a difference in attracting customers again in the future. Sharing posts and even tagging friends can all make a difference.

“Right now, we as a community need to make that decision, ‘do we want these businesses to survive,’” Adams proposed.

Her message to residents is clear, “please support these business in any way possible, even if it’s just with a mental boost to say how loved they are in the community.”

The loss of the tourist season that would have just been getting into full swing now, with the most productive months just around the corner, is especially hard to fathom.

“They make the bulk of their money in the summer that allows them to stay open for the rest of the year,” Adams said.

Big business obviously has the capacity to survive the pandemic by its very nature, but small business that forms the lifeblood of communities like Chemainus faces a much different situation. People will need to make a more conscious choice about their spending habits after the pandemic is done to keep business in the community open.

“I think when we come out of it, there will be a lot more local support, but let’s not wait until then, we have the unique ability to do that now in whatever form possible,” offered Adams.

RELATED: Businesses advised to prepare for federal, B.C. COVID-19 assistance

The story is much the same for the few small businesses in Crofton that will rely on the local customer base more than ever once everything opens up again.

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Husband and wife East and Neena Kamoon, with Art Pookjit, trying to continue serving the public at Thai Pinto through takeout food orders. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Service with a smile is provided at a distance by Art Pookjit for takeout food customer, Courier columnist Nicole Cournoyer of Misfits Fitness Studio and Health Bar, at Thai Pinto Cuisine. (Photo by Don Bodger)

The main block of Willow Street already has vacancies. (Photo by Don Bodger)

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