indicatorAdvice for Alberta businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic

Navigating COVID-19 relief programs for your small or medium-sized business

By ATB Financial 9 December 2020 5 min read

This article was written December 2020. Information regarding business relief programs may no longer be accurate. Please visit the Government of Canada website for the most up-to-date information. 


Since March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was first declared, businesses and industries across Canada and Alberta have suffered significant losses. This economic crisis has seen your customers quarantined and your suppliers shut down—yet your bills are still due.

As a Canadian entrepreneur, you want to access every avenue available to sustain your enterprise. There are federal and provincial programs available which can help mitigate the impact of mandated shutdowns, decreased sales and disappearing revenues.

But which programs apply best to your situation, and at what cost?

To fully leverage the options available, you’ll need to hone in on key aspects of your business, from cost structure to business model, says Sandi MacGregor, Branch Manager at ATB. A good first step is sitting down, reviewing your numbers and answering the tough questions, such as, ‘Am I able to meet my minimum commitments?’ and ‘Should I take on more debt?’

Focus on covering costs

Keeping the wheels of the economy turning during these uncertain times is critical for Canada’s future, Sandi says. “Relief programs address short-term needs of business owners, giving you breathing room to figure out how to continue or how to pivot your business in a new direction.”

She says you can start by calculating what it will take to keep your enterprise afloat.

To do this, consider:

  • What will you need to do to keep operating? (Cover payroll and accounts payable, perhaps launch online sales)
  • What is due? (Leases, utilities)
  • What do you owe? (Loans)
  • Can you cover all costs? (Are you still generating sales, can you cut expenses?)

Defining what you need and what your business needs to stay viable will help guide which option or options to put your time and effort into applying for.

Consider the following:

  • What are the total costs to run your business?
  • How much are your basic costs—utilities, rent, payroll?
  • What are your forecast sales over the next two quarters; will they be enough to be viable or fall short?
  • What are your current commitments, including accounts payable?
  • Will you need to change your business model to stay a business, and how?

If you can’t project your cash flow in these uncertain times, have high fixed costs and can’t rely on sales, maybe you may need to consider taking on more debt. Addressing the above questions will help you estimate how much long-term debt you might need and how much you’re able to take on.

Relief shorthand

We hear what’s keeping Alberta entrepreneurs up at night and linked three major concerns with associated aid programs:

If you need help with your operating costs (existing or new): Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA). Willing to assume some short-term debt? This is one of the first programs you should look at as it’s the least risky debt available: interest free until December 2022, and renewable for three years at five per cent if not repaid in full. With the governments most recent announcement, businesses can now receive an additional $20,000, for a total of $60,000. If repaid by December 31, 2022, thirty-three per cent of the loan will be forgiven (up to $20,000). You can also access CEBA if you’re changing your business direction and have new costs for equipment, communication and delivery.

If you need to cover payroll costs: Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). This taxable program has recently been extended to June 2021 and will cover up to 65 per cent of your employee wages. Eligibility is based on lost revenue, you can calculate your subsidy amount here. Use it to rehire key employees who were laid off because of COVID-19, then, since you get cash back, “you can use it to afford upcoming expenses, like rent or utilities,” Sandi says. Eligible businesses have until January 31, 2021 to apply, or 180 days after the end of the claim period, whichever comes later

If you need to cover your lease: Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERS)This program was announced following the end of the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program. CERS will provide rent and mortgage support directly to eligible tenants (but will also support property owners) until June 2021. Applicants can make retroactive claims for the period beginning September 27, 2020 until June 2021. The program also offers additional Lockdown Support for businesses who had to close their doors due to mandatory public health orders. 

If you need help with cash flow (and CEBA isn’t enough): Export Development Canada (EDC) Business Credit Availability Program (BCAP). The federal government works with your financial institution to guarantee a new operating line of credit or new term loan for 80 per cent of its value, helping us help you cover rent, payroll, operating costs and ordinary course debt payments (such interest and temporary advance repayment that has been incurred since March 1). Unlike CEBA, which only offers a loan of $60,000, businesses can apply for a loan up to $6.25 million (with a maximum amortization period of five years). The terms and conditions of an EDC BCAP loan are set by each financial institution within the parameters of the EDC offering. Contact your advisor for the exact details offered by your financial institution. Applications will need to meet your financial institution’s credit qualifying criteria and be able to service it. Visit this page for FAQ and eligibility requirements.

The Government of Alberta has also announced new changes to the Small and Medium Enterprise Relaunch Grant. Alberta businesses that have experienced at least 30% revenue loss during qualifying months are eligible to receive 15% of their pre-COVID-19 monthly revenue up to a maximum of $5,000 per business. In addition, Alberta businesses that were impacted by the public health orders in effect from November 6, 2020 and later are eligible to receive a second payment of up to $15,000. Applications for the second payment open the week of December 14, 2020 and will be available until March 31, 2021. 

Evaluate risk

Keep track of everything you apply for and the details—such as how you used your loan—as there undoubtedly will be audits later on. You need to document all your processes and the numbers you’ve included to back up why you thought you qualified, and the numbers you used in the application.

Once you’ve determined the program(s) that will benefit you and your business the most, apply. “Government funds are not unlimited. If you believe you qualify and will use the funds as intended, then apply as soon as possible,” Sandi notes.


You can trust us to be at your side with more COVID-19 tips, resources and business advice to mitigate the impact of this downturn and optimize your business opportunities.


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