Home & Garden Guide

by Brad Aubin

With the province in a state of emergency, schools closed since mid March, many workers forced into isolation and now all non-essential businesses ordered to close, there is no doubt the COVID-19 outbreak is having a devastating effect on the economy and West Nipissing is no exception. On March 24, Ontario Premier Doug Ford put out the list of essential businesses allowed to continue operations, and everyone else had to lock their doors – a hard pill to swallow for many small businesses who rely on day-to-day revenue to stay afloat and keep people employed.

Despite fears of financial strife, however, many local entrepreneurs did not even wait for a provincial order to close or limit public access, choosing safety over profit. Indeed, even after the order gave restaurants the green light to continue take-out and delivery as an essential service, some suspended their operations.

Most notable are Sturgeon Falls’ famous chip stands, Larry’s and RIV on Main Street, who put their 45-year old friendly rivalry on hold and agreed to both turn off their fryers temporarily, despite having just opened for the season.

“If you would have asked me three weeks ago if we would be closing our restaurant only two weeks after opening up in our busy season... well let’s just say that that wasn’t an idea that anyone had floating around,” admits RIV owner Bruno Lepage. “Before we closed and before it got as serious as it did, as fast as it did, we were still following protocol. We kept our staff and customers as safe as we possibly could by stepping up with a higher frequency of cleaning above and beyond our already extremely high standards.”

But as time went on, and the news became more and more dire, the owners felt the best move was to stay home, which would protect their own families but also their staff and the public. “With the info that was provided and after the report came out on the 24th that only essential businesses stay open, and even though we are technically an essential business, we got together, talked about it, and felt ourselves and our staff should follow that two week recommendation. We want to assist our staff in enabling them to self-isolate, enable them to take time to stay inside. We felt like this was the appropriate response to the situation. [Larry’s and us] just felt like we wanted to nip it in the bud, and get back to business.”

Charlene Bolduc’s business, Sturgeon Falls Printing, was also deemed an essential one. But she made the call to close up her shop to walk-in business while she waits out the pandemic. “I have a lot of foot traffic in the shop... but being a business and office supply operator I get to stay open. Basically I’m taking orders to give me a full day’s work, then I go in... print packages, business cards, posters, etc, and then go back home.” The mother of twins, whose husband works in emergency response, cannot take risks with her family’s health. “It’s just not worth it for me to stay open and get people coming in for photocopies for example. I don’t know what’s on that paper you want me to copy. I don’t want to bring it home. It’s scary times.”

Bolduc believes the world will be different after this is all over, that people will have a different outlook and appreciate the little things more. “We need to have a better appreciation for life’s essentials. It can get taken away from us so very quickly. This thing started across the world, and weeks later our whole country is on lockdown. Things happen so quickly.”

Still, she admits the strain on business is real, and she wonders about what might happen if the crisis stretches out, say four to six weeks. The impact on local businesses would be brutal. “It’s mentally a little difficult, you know? Business wise... we work so hard to keep something afloat. Having to be told to shut it down, that you might get sick, that your parents or grandparents may die, it’s terrible, especially for someone in my position. I adore my job. I love my business. I love my clients. I love being able to help the people I work with, I love driving down the street and seeing a vehicle that I did a decal for. When this is all over, we need to support each other. We need to stick together.”

Don Leblanc has been adapting his business to respond to current needs. His two restaurants, Padou’s Steak and Ribs and Don’s Pub and Grill, are both temporarily closed, while his butcher shop remains open. “We tried to keep the pub open for deliveries but I think because people are buying so many groceries... it just wasn’t worthwhile for us to keep operating. The butcher shop is doing well, and meat is very much in demand. I’m selling meat packages from Elliot Lake to Wawa, folks coming in from New Liskeard or Sudbury... things are well at the shop. We also brought in different necessities for the community,” he explains.

As you enter Don’s Butcher Shop, you see stacks of produce, paper towel, toilet paper - a variety of essential goods on your way to the meat counter. “It was a quick call for me; folks were coming in telling me that there weren’t any potatoes to be found, there wasn’t any paper towel or toilet paper, so I reacted and got some to sell. I got a lot of good feedback; I’m positioned downtown so it’s very convenient for a lot of people. There’s less waiting time than the box stores too, which helps,” he notes.

Despite the popularity of his butcher shop, Leblanc shares that it has been a crazy few weeks for business. “I knew as a business guy it was going to hurt me. Whenever cash flow stops, it’s not a good thing. We figured two weeks, we’ll take it, we’ll survive. But now... I mean I don’t know. I’m following it very closely. It’s not just two weeks anymore. It’s the uncertainty of the whole thing that’s boggling. I know that I’m not the only one who thinks like that. It’s just the unknown. We don’t know what’s coming next.”

Leblanc does believe the economic impact will be extreme, not just now but afterwards as well. “We’re not going to be processing the same. It’s going to change everybody. We’re all in the same boat here. And I know it’s hard...  but we still have to encourage all of our small businesses. If we lose, if our small businesses go bankrupt and we end up with just big box stores... we will see elevated prices. You’ll see it. You’d be surprised how a small meat shop like mine helps control the prices. I hope people keep supporting us local businesses as best they can.”

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