Community business owners were given an opportunity to join an online roundtable discussion and ask questions of municipal, provincial and federal leaders about the COVID-19 situation.
The discussion was facilitated by Huntsville/Lake of Bays Chamber of Commerce executive director Kelly Haywood who said approximately 190 participants had registered for the event. The forum was hosted by Parry Sound-Muskoka MP Scott Aitchison in partnership with Parry Sound-Muskoka MPP Norm Miller, Huntsville Mayor Karin Terziano and Lake of Bays Mayor Terry Glover.
The significant cost of internet overage fees
Issues discussed included access to the internet, its reliability, and fees related to going over allotted data packages, particularly in rural areas. Aitchison said it’s a huge issue and his government has been lobbying for internet providers, such as Bell and Rogers, to treat rural customers the same way they’ve treated urban customers by waiving their overage fees. “And we’re also lobbying the government to assist with this issue as well because, of course, Bell and Rogers don’t seem all that keen to play ball with us just yet.”
Miller said the province is investing in more infrastructure. He said it has committed $3 million over five years and small pockets of communities have seen accessibility expanded through new technologies, “but it’s a very slow process and it takes years so it doesn’t solve this immediate situation, right now, but it is obviously a long-term plan of the provincial government to expand as much broadband as is possible in our vast geographic area.”
Businesses that sell food are also unfairly selling other non-essential items
Concerns were also raised about businesses considered an essential service because they sell food also selling other non-essential items, which puts businesses that have had to close, such as garden centres, at an unfair disadvantage.
Miller said the issue had also been brought up by a couple of Canadian Tire stores in Muskoka “concerned that companies like Walmart that are selling food have the whole store open and they consider that to be a disadvantage…”
Miller noted that they were allowed to sell at the curbside and he did make a curbside purchase at a Canadian Tire “and it worked quite well, actually quite effectively.” He said he’s written on their behalf to provincial ministers speaking about the fairness issue related to ensuring a level playing field as some businesses are allowed to open and others are not.
Glover said he’d like to see the garden centres participate in people’s ability to grow their own food.
Miller reminded those in the forum that “even if you’re classified as a non-essential business you can still do online sales.”
What about employees who are still working but getting fewer hours?
Another question involved employees who are still working but getting fewer hours as a result of the pandemic. Kirsten Baker, parliamentary assistant to Aitchison, said the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which works out to $500/week and can also be accessed by people who are self-employed, has been tweaked. “And now you can make a little bit of money and still collect CERB, so that’s one of the changes that’s happened within the last couple of days.”
Baker said the wage subsidy program, which is of interest to a lot of businesses, was recently announced and the details are still being worked out.
Conservatives pushing for a refund of GST payments collected for the past six months
Those in attendance also heard that the Conservative Party is lobbying the Liberal government to refund GST payments collected for the past six months to help businesses recover. Aitchison also said there are ongoing discussions with provincial premiers to talk about how the federal government might work with the provinces to assist small businesses, and things like commercial rents are on the table.
Impact of COVID-19 on local real estate
Other questions involved the impact the pandemic would have on the real estate market in the area. Aitchison said that while he thinks the market will slow in the short-term due to the pandemic, he said the current situation could make areas like Muskoka even more appealing than a small apartment in an urban centre with no room to roam. He also speculated that people will continue to move to the area as they sell their primary home in the city and in some cases take an early retirement and get out of the city.
Miller also noted that due to the economic impact COVID-19 is having on buyers, the market will cool and prices may drop, “but I think with time, our area will certainly remain as popular as ever as one of the most beautiful spots close to the 905 in Toronto that it is.”
Are boat ramps closed or open?
Others wanted to know whether boat ramps are closed, and whether boat owners can launch their boats and go fishing.
Miller said that decision is being made by individual municipalities. Some are deciding to leave them open for emergency needs or residential construction, while others have decided to close them. As to whether people can launch their boat and go fishing, Miller said he did not know of any regulation prohibiting that at this time but advised against it. “If it was to be done it should be done by people that are in a close family unit, not with people that aren’t living right together all the time. And it’s certainly not something to be encouraged, we’re trying to maintain social distancing but there’s not any specific rule against it.”
Terziano said Huntsville’s boat launches are open. She said the municipality had had requests from Bell Canada and commercial businesses to use the boat launch to get to areas they need to work in. “So right now they’re open and we will talk about it every week as we see whether things ramp up or not.”
Glover said boat launches in Lake of Bays are open as well. “We do have a number of construction companies as well and we’re monitoring them for safety,” he said.
The influx of seasonal residents to the area was also discussed, and all panelists urged residents not to create an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, and to treat each other with respect. They noted that all residents are part of the community—whether year-round or seasonal—and noted that everyone should be practising social isolating to try and flatten the curve. Seasonal residents coming to their cottage from other areas are asked to bring enough food in order to isolate for at least a two-week period.
Ironman also came up
Someone submitted a question asking that the event be rescheduled due to the close contact of a large number of people associated with the event.
Terziano said that while the event has not officially been cancelled, organizers are looking at a new date.
You can watch the full roundtable Q&A here
- Parry Sound, Carling, McDougall and Seguin on Monday, April 20 at 6:30 p.m.
- Bracebridge and Muskoka Lakes on Tuesday, April 21 at 10:30 a.m.
- Gravenhurst and Georgian Bay on Thursday, April 23 at 10:00 a.m.
- Burk’s Falls, South River and Sundridge on Thursday, April 23 at 6:30 p.m.
To register for any of the sessions above, click here.
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