Small Business COVID Impact Report Thunder Bay Roundtable

This is my letter to the Head of the Ontario NDP party and will be sharing this to many other party leaders but I want to share it with everyone too. I was invited to speak and participate at a roundtable meeting with the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce but wasn’t able to move my schedule around.

My name is Scotia Kauppi, I am the owner of Sweet Cherry Spa which has been open for 7 years. I was previously a teacher at Everest College as an esthetics instructor and still sometimes teach special effects makeup for the Esthetics Academy and Confederation College’s Conflix program. I am also on the board of directors for the Fort William BIA.

I was invited to this roundtable to present how the COVID lockdowns and restrictions effected both the personal services industry in Thunder Bay and how it has and still is affecting the Fort William Business District (BIA). I will have these 2 different reflections separated into two sections so to keep both viewpoints coherent.

I want to very much thank you for coming to Thunder Bay to hear our industries experiences as we all had a vastly different way of how COVID has affected us and continues to do so.

Section 1: COVID Restrictions and Lockdown Effects on the Thunder Bay Personal Services Industry

I am sure you are aware that the personal services industry was one of if not the hardest struck by the Ontario provincial lockdowns and COVID health guidelines.  Just for a quick go recap of what happened to us and what was expected of us:

  • We had to close down from March 21st 2020 till June 15th 2020
  • We were then required to wear masks, gloves, change aprons and scrubs between every client, time out clients out with longer cleaning times and couldn’t preform half if not all our services (depending on if you were a hair stylist, esthetician, nail tech, tattoo artist, body piercer). We also had to move around our entire salons/spas/shops, cut hours and shifts so no one could stand beside each other and add plexiglass dividers where needed.
  • Esthetic services can be performed on the face safely and responsibly, just as cosmetic nurses and doctors, massage therapists, acupuncturists, dentists and dental hygienists have been allowed to do. But we were not allowed to do so. This caused there to be many clients to become frustrated and to seek out the underground barbers, nail techs and tattoo artists who didn’t care about the rules.
  • As most of our industry closes for the winter holidays, we lost out on 2 weeks before the second lockdown started. This one was from January 1 2021 until what was supposed to be June 2nd but then the lockdown colour code changed and turned into vaccination rates, which then threw us all back into lockdown until mid-July.  If we had stayed within the colour codes that we had been following for a year prior Thunder Bay would have been in yellow of green where my industry could have been open a month earlier with full services.
  • We still had to restrict clients, services, clients and staffing up until September when restrictions eased for us. Many of us with the Proof of Vaccine (POV) must make the decision on how to schedule and book clients depending on accepting non vaccinated people or not.

I am not saying I don’t understand or personally not agree with why lockdowns were implemented but just the difference between how large operations and regular stores were allowed to operate it did feel like there was a giant unneeded target on the personal services industry. COVID19 is an air borne virus and touching and cleaning was to be implemented in stores (something that my industry especially piercing, tattoos and estheticians take extremely seriously and already have very tight regulations set for us by the Health Units) and they could operate at a percentage capacity seeing as most salons/spas operate at 1 on 1 or less than 10 people inside at a time we couldn’t still do our jobs. I know they aren’t essential for when we were in full lockdowns, but many other non-essential businesses were allowed to open before our restrictions were lifted. When talking to Health Unit inspectors they also mentioned their frustration at the requirements for personal services were heavily targeted an industry which is already high regulated in this manner.  I would like to also mention at this time there was extra frustrations between hairdressers/barbers and estheticians as estheticians are still not required to be licensed in Ontario, making a even bigger underground black market during lock down for unsafe, unclean and unregulated estheticians and nail/lash technicians.

The majority of personal service business owners and workers are women 20-45, very small operations from 1 person (such as my case) to salons/shops with staff of under 10 people. When applying for the CERB and the Ontario Small Business grants; many of our tax requirements and other information required to be submitted for applications were denied because they were too small or the data collectors on the CRA had “misread” many of them denying any benefits.  The CEBA loan from 2020 should be retrofitted to be a grant as well to cover the businesses who took it in 2020 as the government pretty much matched it in 2021 with the Ontario Small Business grant. Starting the pay back of the loan now just when CERB had just ended is extra stress on the small business owner who has a hairs thin tension of stress left ready to break.

               For Example: A local salon owner, Miss Carly Hughes (Owner of Wink Beauty Salon). She is a one-person salon. She applied and was denied her CERB the most basic finical help that was for everyone. She only THIS THURSDAY November 4th has gotten it back paid to her. She almost lost her business (and still might soon), she had to spend all her savings and take out numerous loans just to live.  When the government got back to her after 3 appeals, she was told they had “misread” her original notice of assessment. She also applied for the Ontario small business grant, was denied based on the same documents, had multiple reviews and reapplications to finally be approved for the 1st part by August but still hasn’t received the automatic second promised portion. Being told “stop calling us we will call you when its approved”. This is unacceptable.

 All these restrictions and interruptions of services were also highly amplified by many loopholes made especially for Toronto but couldn’t apply to us. Such as makeup artists and hair stylists could work on set for media productions but as that’s not a industry that we really have here no one was allowed to work (including photographers).  The selection for beauty professionals in the film and media industry is small and still many across all of Ontario have not returned to work till now.

That’s just the time and finical aspects of what was placed on us and not even to mention the impact of all of it on our families and mental health. I can’t count how many peers of mine relapsed into addictions, could not afford their medications, had to forgo dental and optometry as they are still privatized health care. No personal service workers have health coverage (of health insurance or life insurance), if they do it’s less than 1% of us: we pay for all those things out of pocket.

For Example: My story. The first lock down I was happy to have a break the first month, just like many of my peers, I do not take holidays. I work through holidays, I only get 2 days off and only 1 of them is a weekend day the other is a catch-up day (kids still must go to school, groceries, doctor appointments, etc) the finical stress of only making a 1/3 of what I normally make over the summer got to me and even getting back in the late summer, stress and depression were coming up. By the second lockdown a family members addiction came up, effected our whole family, I couldn’t afford my medication in months, and I ended up suicidal with a few attempts and in the hospital. I couldn’t even get the proper health care and had to be an outpatient because of the hospital not wanting to have “non-essential patients” in incase the COVID ward had to be increased. Then my stepmother died of COVID that was brought to her by a PSW in her nursing home because the same extremely strict rules that were applied to me…. Were not being practiced within that industry. My husband’s mental health has also deteriorated from being laid off because they couldn’t have the same manpower because of COVID staffing restrictions in his field. My kid’s mental health suffered and the school board only offered emergency counseling to kids who needed to deal with COVID lockdowns problems only in the 2020 summer and was not offered again this summer: nor was it continued after into the fall. With all this stress on me and my family, I have been back in the hospital twice and had to have crisis called on me. There is nothing in place to help with any of it.

This is just a few examples of how the government handled COVID and how it effects myself and my industry in Thunder Bay.

Section 2: The Impacts of COVID Restrictions on the Fort William Business District

The Fort William Business District is the civic and business district of Thunder Bay. We hold all City Hall offices, the Ontario Court of Justice, Thunder Bay District Social Services, Matawa Health Co-Operative, Dilico Child and Family services, St Joseph’s Care Group, PARO group and countless lawyers, doctors, social service offices and the accompanying other health, beauty, retail and food industry businesses.  Over 80 business which have all been impacted by COVID and the restrictions.

Since the first lock down approximately 95% of our businesses and offices in the area were shut down and up until now there’s still about 15% who are still not even back from working from home. We do recognize that this is the “new normal”. 

Most of the cafes, restaurants and many of the other retail stores really relied on the employees of all the offices and government offices as their core customer base. With their business able to re-open but the office workers not coming back yet; they have all suffered a big loss and dip in their standard day to day profits.

During the lockdowns the only open office in our entire area was P.A.C.E non-for-profit organization which was the city’s ONLY cooling and warming center for vulnerable and homeless people; not even the shelter house was open the whole time.  

These 2 situations of vulnerable people all congregating in one area of the whole city and not having a core of employees stabilizing the “vibe” of the street has caused massive tensions between business owners/customers and the social services offices workers/community members.  There is no doubt a very big problem with racism, classism, and “not in my back yard” mentality in our city to begin with.  The stress that COVID has put on all of us as a community unfortunately heightens these social issues to an extreme. As the vulnerable population comes to P.A.C.E to access their services (a cool/warm environment, a safe place to have a shower, food and use their internet/phone resources to keep in contact with family, friends and workers) a worse part of our population follows. Drug Dealers, gangs and pimps. They take full advantage of the stress on everyone and the fact everyone is in one place to target.  Many have moved in the area’s above business apartments, so they are close to their targets and expand their coverage of traphouses in our surrounding area (where I also live).

Once we all got back to the office at the BIA it was the first thing on our agenda. We ended up having a emergency meeting with P.A.C.E’s chair, workers, members, our board, city councilors and police representatives. We were told that there is always a shortage of funding for organizations like P.A.C.E and others such as the shelter house and Nor-West Community Health center. Why is there no extra funding for the only community help center in the whole of Thunder Bay during a pandemic? There is not enough space in any of the shelters and only 12 beds for over 1000 on waitlists for the 1 detox program we have in Thunder Bay.

We were told that there are not enough police to have street outreach, beat cops or extra drive arounds by officers. We were told at the time there was only 12 officers on duty each shift for the entire city (and most of the time all first responders are in code black). Thunder Bay has begged and asked for more funding to address the gang, drug and human trafficking that has rapidly escalated in Thunder Bay amongst already trying to restructure the police, having the Chief and board being totally replaced and having their own investigations against them. We need more help.

 What can we as a BIA do to help? Our focus has been to make our members feel safe without trying to have our community neighbours feel attacked. We have implemented a private security pilot project. We have our own privately contracted security guard who is available to all business owners during workdays and during the day they drive around and address concerns for naloxone, calling the police and first responders when needed. We are currently collecting data on how our BIA members are experiencing crime and feelings of safety with the new security presence.

We are finalizing a free security camera program for all our members as well. Many of our business owners have taken it into their own hands and have gone to personally talk to the pimps, johns and dealers. Asking them politely to not do all their business on the sidewalks Infront of everyone’s stores. Their stress in hopes to have their customers feel safe and welcomed into the area as the complaints rise is resulting in this potentially dangerous behavior that they shouldn’t ever have to do.

Trying to bring community back together in a positive way after such a long series of lockdowns the BIA has started on a new events calendar. We started with hosting a street food festival at the beginning of September 2021. Hosting street performers, local food trucks and food vendors we had about 225 people come from all around Thunder Bay and outlying areas to come enjoy the day. We plan to have more of these food fest days next summer.  We are continuing this trend with planning a large winter festival with tree lighting, lots of advertising opportunities to our members, planning snow sculptors and more.  Depending on COVID numbers and restrictions we will add more and more community activities to our events.  We are excited to be the center of the city when the Scottie’s 2022 Tournament of Hearts comes to the Fort William Gardens this January.

We have teamed up with the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce in their #ChooseTBayFirst campaign to bring a spotlight back to our area of town.  We have begun restructuring our grants/funding, branding, website and bringing in new initiatives to bring in new businesses to the area and help our current businesses to get a leg up on getting back out there.

Unfortunately, our BIA has seen a few of our members lose their business due to COVID, some new that tried to open during the pandemic and others who have been staples of our area for years. We are happy to say there many were able to stay afloat with small business grants and other initiatives such as the digital marketing grant to help them make the transition to online sales or in many of our café and restaurants cases: get onto skip the dishes. Though just as many other businesses most of our members used their grant money to just barely stay alive and not close their doors.

We are still trying to help and plan for the BIA’s future into the unknown of what will happen with the pandemic.

Section 3: What We Need for Thunder Bay and Ontario Small Businesses

There obviously is a lot that needs to be addressed with the outcomes of the CVOID funding for all citizens of Ontario post pandemic and trying to recover while still coming out of different levels of restrictions.  From this roundtable I am sure you can see that Thunder Bay has very different experience with COVID compared to other hot spots for the virus.  We in the North are extremely vulnerable to changes in mental health, social and economic stressors. I would put it that most of us feel that the Government of Ontario did not pay attention to our numbers, recommendations from the Thunder Bay Health Unit or complaints and requests for help for us and all of Northwestern Ontario.

To quickly summarize what we need going forward to help the personal services industry:

  • We need a Universal Basic Income to protect our bare necessities that doesn’t require any prior tax information to apply.
  • We need the CEBA 2020 loan to be retrofitted into a grant
  • Any small businesses who were approved for the 1st portion of the Small Business Ontario grant to automatically be given the 2nd promised portion now.
  • Dental and Optometry health services need to be socialized for all ages
  • Drug coverage for mental health and essential prescriptions should be free with just a small dispensing fee for adult Ontarians.
  • The esthetics industry needs to be licensed to keep all services and clients safe.
  • The government of Ontario needs to reassess the rankings and restrictions put on different industries based on prequalifying health codes they must already follow.

As a representative for the Fort William BIA, where because of our location we see the deepest and darkest struggles of our community; I believe that the Ontario Government needs to push mandates for:

  • Thunder Bay social services and non-profit organizations need a great deal more funding for basic care services, shelters, tiny homes projects and housing, mental health services and detox facilities.
  • We need more mental health services to be accessible for everyone.
  • Thunder Bay police need more funding and help to address the explosion of gang, drug and human trafficking in the city. This needs to include funding for more street outreach programing to keep business areas safe for everyone community, customers and business owners.
  • Again, a Universal basic Income to make sure that all our small business owners do not have to choose home over business and give up an entire career and life just to keep the lights on at home.

I sincerely thank you so much for your time and hope to see a brighter future for everyone in Thunder Bay, Ontario and Canada.

Scotia Kauppi

Owner Sweet Cherry Spa, Fort William BIA Board of Directors

703 Victoria Ave E

Thunder Bay Ontario P7C 5X9

scotiamua@gmail.com

(807)251-2891

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