Hospitality sector relief cannot end with COVID-19

It started in Toronto, quickly popped up in British Columbia, then in Quebec, and within just a few weeks cases of COVID-19 were being reported across Canada with provinces declaring states of emergency one by one.

I, like many workers in the service and hospitality industry, watched the news while progressively coming to the hard realization that I would soon be out of a job.

Sure enough, come the end of March, nonessential businesses were restricted in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus resulting in an initial round of layoffs.

According to Statistics Canada, from March 2020 to February 2021, approximately 17,100 Manitobans in the culinary sector were forced out of work and 6,000 more have left the sector in search of new employment.

However, this recession is sector-specific — restaurants and hotels have faced the brunt of the economic crisis witnessing a 31 per cent drop of employment rates.

In an attempt to aid these businesses struggling to rebound, Manitoba’s government has recently announced a new $8 million relief program for the hospitality and tourism sector.

The money will be distributed through grants as to cover a selection of business costs including property insurance, mortgage interest, service fees, resource retention costs and land leases.

Businesses in the hospitality and tourism sector are vital contributors to the health of Manitoba’s economy and have sacrificed a great deal to ensure our local communities can stay as healthy as possible.

The influx of funding is coming at a crucial moment as many tourism related businesses are expected to endure a second year of little to no business as a result of international travel restrictions.

Due to potential risks posed by the COVID-19 variants, it’s also important that the provincial government continue offering support in new ways to those who need it most in order to prepare for unknown consequences.

The new relief funding is obviously welcomed by business in the industry, but the question of whether this $8 million will be sufficient in meeting their needs still remains.

Even if best case scenarios are realized, with new vaccine rollouts offering a glimmer of hope, it’s expected that the hospitality and tourism sectors will not fully recover from the COVID-induced recession for several years.

A report from CBRE Hotels detailed that in Winnipeg, occupancy in hotels dropped from roughly 71.1 per cent to approximately 33.7 per cent over the course of the last year.

Because of low occupancy combined with minimal revenue from other sources, including restaurants and bars, the tourism industry has not had the need or ability to hire back most of their laid off employees.

Many individuals have relied on Employment Insurance (EI) or the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) as a source of income due to job loss.

EI is notoriously difficult to contact and many people have to wait on hold for hours just to speak to a correspondent if they can even get through by phone at all. Beyond these complications, EI or CRB might not be enough to cover bills and expenses long term, especially for families.

Employees in this situation may be waiting patiently for their former employers to call them back to work, but the tourism sector is not expected to reach normal revenues until 2024. It may be years until hotels, lodges and other businesses in the industry are operating at pre-COVID capacity.

If laid-off employees are not able to return to work, the government needs to develop long term systems to aid those caught in the middle.

It’s also important provincial and federal governments evaluate how much additional aid they will need to provide businesses directly. After a devastating year and with an unknown future ahead, the government must dig deep, get creative and cultivate an unparalleled solution to the current situation.

No one planned to endure COVID-19, and the hospitality and tourism industries have faced huge complications and widespread closures in order to follow restrictions required to maintain public health and safety.

Even now, the RBC Convention Centre is a massive vaccination site helping Manitoba vaccinate thousands of people daily — another example of how much these spaces and industries in Manitoba have given up for the greater good.

While the new relief fund is a step in the right direction, increased aid should be provided to businesses and employees in the hospitality and tourism sectors to ensure we can enjoy the myriad benefits these businesses bring to Manitoban communities for years to come.