A Main Street business shows its hours cut back due to COVID-19 in Whitehorse on March 31. Whitehorse city council members made it clear at their June 23 meeting they want to do more to help local businesses hit hard by COVID-19. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Whitehorse city council considers economy

Wonders how to assist businesses impacted by COVID-19

Whitehorse city council members made it clear at their June 23 meeting they want to do more to help local businesses hit hard by COVID-19, but exactly what that help will be is unknown.

City of Whitehorse economic development officer Greg Stone presented council with a report outlining measures already taken to help businesses that are impacted while also pointing to possibilities for the future.

“At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, some local businesses reported their fears of the devastating impacts to their business,” Stone said. “As the pandemic continues into summer 2020, some businesses report they are experiencing significantly lower revenue than previous years, while others are reporting record sales.”

A survey by the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce found from 211 responses, 85 per cent lost revenue due to COVID-19 with half of those reporting having lost half their revenue.

“Also within this time, 50 per cent reported laying off staff,” he said.

Stone went on to list a number of responses by the city that may have helped businesses already ranging from suspending interest and penalties on utility bills to not charging lease payments at the CGC during its closure to establishing a COVID-19 Resources for Businesses web page, among others.

He said there remains impacts on businesses as the territorial border remains closed to many, and though many businesses can reopen, there are a number of restrictions that remain in place such as distancing requirements.

Stone outlined a number of initiatives council could consider as it moves forward including waiving business licence fees and sidewalk cafe permit fees, though it was noted business licenses generated $533,637 in 2019. And while the city could look at allowing the use of parking spaces for on-street patios, given the time it takes for a bylaw to come into effect, it likely wouldn’t happen until the end of summer.

Coun. Steve Roddick continued to argue for the possibility, pointing out council has pushed through bylaws in other cases, but it was noted by staff that only happens when it is deemed an emergency situation.

Stone also pointed out council could consider temporary changes to create more flexibility for home-based businesses such as increasing the maximum number of businesses permitted in one dwelling, increasing the number of clients permitted on the site, and permitting those who aren’t residents to work at minor home-based businesses.

“Because of the requirements of the bylaw process, the new regulations could potentially come into effect in late September of early fall of this year,” he said.

Looking further ahead, Stone suggested a long-term economic recovery plan with the Yukon government could be explored, and the upcoming review of the city’s zoning bylaw would mean consulting with the local business community to identify concerns and possible solutions through zoning.

Following Stone’s presentation, council members voiced their support for looking at ways to assist.

“What do we need to do to kick-start things more quickly?” questioned Coun. Samson Hartland.

Acting city manager Valerie Braga replied by noting the work the city has already done and stressing the importance of getting a sense of what the broader business community might need.

The Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce had emailed the city earlier, but that has yet to be reviewed by council.

Coun. Laura Cabott said she wants to look at that and also suggested the upcoming annual general meeting of the chamber would be a good opportunity to engage with organization about what needs to happen to support local business.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com