The pandemic in winter: a beast set to devour local businesses

I know, as a long-ago marathon runner, we are entering the pandemic’s physical and psychological phase of dissolute energy, mental withering and possibly hitting the wall. We were promised this long and slow run, not a sprint, and it is coming true.

Who can claim competence or authority upon what this pandemic phase will relay? We are making it up as we go, with hours and even days when our output isn’t at its best. But the pandemic’s impact in winter’s weather stands to easily subdue motivation, innovation and determination.

Every winter already features a Canadian thing: we taper and recede in the cold, anyway, and coronavirus may further make us insulate and detach. We have found the technology to occupy all of our hours, after all. The monitoring of our lives has lessened when we work from home or in depopulated offices, so there is a different accountability on our time and outcomes.

What most worries me is not my plight, necessarily, but that of others near me – the community’s business lifeblood, in particular, frail in seeking and creating the impetus to not only regroup but to build back better.

What it means in my personal economy, my discretionary spending, is paying more than I might for the goods and services globally to retain the good service of my community. Amazon is always there for everything, except for the face in the local store that serves, appreciates and encourages. That personal touch cannot be replaced by tech, but I will admit that during the pandemic it has been tempting to try so. What I have reeled back in recent weeks is the tendency to abide the technologically determinant view that convenience is paramount.

It isn’t. Far from it.

When you stand across a vendor, even in today’s masked milieu, you recognize that your neighbours have invested in your proximity – in you as a customer, a client, a collaborator – and that your obligation is to respect their commitment. Without that covenant, we have no community.

The pandemic is shaking our souls. It has no allies. It is against our side every moment.

We have to teach ourselves new rituals arising from public health concern. One, though, is a throwback: to shop locally, to stay close to home, to bring what benefits you can to those nearest.

Governments have yet to apprehend how society can be salvaged with a strategy to keep those with some money in the stores nearby, to keep the fading pulse from flatlining. The allure of the outdoor patios is about to subside, and we have wasted this summer in not using that momentum to create a series of supports and incentives to keep the shopping streets of our cities vital.

Small-business income taxes ought to have been set aside, rents rebated, special subsidies injected, hiring programs introduced – all in the service of keeping these places from what many have become in boarded-up bankruptcy. Our federal government is possessed with the macro-economics of the pandemic; our provincial election campaign speaks little of these issues; our municipalities are mute.

It is axiomatic that if we wish to preserve our identity, we need to recognize the intrinsic value of the local merchant. That person is partly our person, and any abandonment now is an abandonment of ourselves. If we are not going to benefit from any government imagination, we have to take control of what money we have and bring it to them.

We are entering that rainy, grey, soaked, dark time of the year. It is an open question on whether it was better to start the pandemic as spring emerged to mitigate the initial effect, or if it might have been better to start the pandemic in the emerging cold to send us inside to suffocate the spread.

No matter. We are here, on the cusp of a lengthy make-or-break season for which we do not produce tourism posters to attract visitors. This winter will be an inflection point for our province, one to be examined decades from now as the test of our resolve to help each other – or just to help ourselves.

How we respond now, even after being asked repeatedly to respond, is the test of our lives. •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.