To say the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on Manitoba’s economy and business community would be an understatement.

The 2020 Manitoba Business Outlook Survey, conducted between Oct. 30 and Nov. 16, 2020, re-affirmed what the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce (MCC) has heard from members and the broader business community since the declaration of the pandemic: COVID-19 is the defining force for all decision-making, flowing as a dark undercurrent in some sectors while decimating others.

Commissioned by the MCC and delivered in conjunction with partners Léger, CPHR Manitoba, World Trade Centre Winnipeg, Red River College, the Rural Manitoba Economic Development Organization, and Manitoba Business Matters, the survey revealed:

  • Cash flow is the single greatest concern for Manitoba businesses (29% of survey respondents say it’s their chief concern).
  • Most leaders say they’ve restricted spending given the uncertainty (60% of respondents), and more than half (54%) say they’ve experienced a decrease in sales.
  • There are gaps in information related to government emergency relief and support programs, and there are opportunities to enhance overall communication.
  • Employees are experiencing high levels of stress. (18% of respondents said employee well-being/mental health was their top concern).

“This survey, our third annual, is a key barometer for us, and we use it to assess economic confidence levels, identify challenges and barriers to growth, and shape our advocacy efforts,” says Chuck Davidson, MCC President & CEO. “This year’s results paint a fairly dark picture, as confidence is clearly shaken and Manitoba’s business leaders are operating in a fairly precarious position.”

Roughly one in five survey respondents (18%) reported that COVID-19 has had an “extremely negative impact on their operations” and just under half (48%) say it has had a “medium impact.” Unfortunately, Manitoba’s small businesses and the tourism/restaurant/hospitality industries were more likely to report an “extremely negative impact,” just as they did in MCC’s March 2020 survey at the outset of the pandemic.

“In the spring, diligent Manitobans did an incredible job of bending the COVID-19 curve, the stay-at-home order was a sharp event, and there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Andrew Enns, Executive VP – Winnipeg, Léger. “The harsh reality is that COVID-19 has been with us a long time, we’re exhausted from the extra operational demands it has created, physical distancing is mentally tough, health order restrictions are tightening, case numbers are trending in the wrong direction, and we’re not able to look forward to 2021 with much anticipation or positivity.”

The survey revealed that one-quarter of businesses (25%) have accumulated debt because of the pandemic, 45% say they’re operating at reduced levels due to health orders, 35% have laid off employees, and just 8% reported an increase in online sales.

“Business performance is not what it was in 2019, we know that liquidity is a big issue, and COVID-19 emergency relief funds just don’t make up for what has been lost,” says Davidson. “However, on a positive note, there is a fairly high level of awareness of government relief programs — more so federal than provincial. In fact, more than one-third of business leaders (39%) say what they need most right now is information about evolving provincial programs.”

The MCC is pleased that 40% of respondents had applied for and were receiving the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), designed to enable employers to keep staff on payroll by defraying a portion of wages (currently proposed for extension until June 2021). Also, 37% had applied for and received the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA), a loan designed to fund operations amid decreasing revenues, with a portion to be forgiven if the balance is paid off by a specified date.

When we examine the provincial relief program statistics, just 6% of respondents say they’ve applied for and received the Manitoba Back to Work Wage Subsidy, which defrays 50% of wages (up to $7/hr) for up to 20 employees until Dec. 31, 2020. Only 8% say they had applied for and received funds through the Manitoba Gap Protection Program, intended for businesses falling through the cracks of federal programs.

Both federal and provincial governments have taken steps to address business liquidity, but more needs to be done to help businesses and workers through this crisis. Even still, the majority of respondents (69%) remain optimistic about their business, with more than 60% predicting their staff complement to be about the same at this time next year, and 14% saying it may be even larger.

“Given the conditions we’re operating in, that level of positivity is not too bad at all,” says Davidson.

Thank you again to our 2020 survey partners, Leger, CPHR Manitoba, Red River College, World Trade Centre Winnipeg, the Rural Manitoba Economic Development Organization, and Manitoba Business Matters, without your support we could not do this important work.