Manitoba Duty Free Store Owner Says Closed Border, Prospect of Lost Financial Help ‘Very Scare’

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A Manitoba duty-free shop owner is struggling to stay open as the border between Canada and the United States remains closed to non-essential travelers.

Simon Resch co-owns the Duty Free Shop in Emerson, Manitoba. His family-owned business has sold liquor, perfumes, cosmetics, tobacco and Canadiana to cross-border travelers since 1982.

However, he has not been selling much throughout 2020.

“Because the leisure travellers have effectively disappeared from the border crossing in international travel, we don’t have a customer base.”

Resch says his earnings have fell by 80 to 85%, and there are only 15 staff on the schedule compared to pre-COVID-19 times when there would be over half than that.

“On certain weeks when maybe there’s a few more trucks out there, we’re down 75 per cent and we cheer, which is backwards to me, you know. It’s so strange,” he said.

The same is true for the other 32 land border duty-free stores on the Canadian side of the border, according to Barbara Barrett, the executive director of Frontier Duty-Free Association.

Unlike other businesses, duty-free stores, which are solely owned, are mainly regulated by the Canadian Border Services Agency, which administers their licenses.

“If people aren’t going into the stores then exiting into the U.S., they have no motor business,” she said.

“They can’t do online. They can’t pivot and do domestic sales because they’ll lose their licence. And they can’t do curbside pickup. There’s no way for them to pivot and do a different model of business based on the pandemic.”

All 33 land border stores have had to discard some items that are past their expiry date, she added.

“They can’t even they can’t sell it domestically. They couldn’t even donate it without having to also pay duties and taxes on it, which can be quite expensive when you’re not having any revenue coming in,” Barrett said.

“It’s a pretty desperate situation for them across the board.”

Government assistance

Resch has made use of a range of different provincial and federal support programs, including the Canadian Emergency Business Account, Manitoba bridge grant, wage and rent supports and the specialized resources for the tourism sector.

“Quite literally every single federal program that exists, we’ve applied for,” he said.

Barrett says these programs are created for businesses that have been able to pivot due to the pandemic and have lost some (but not all) of their income.

She says there’s a lot that needs to be done to support this very specialized sector.

That could seem like tapping into the $500 million federal Tourism Relief Fund that the government proposed in its 2021 budget.

“I think it’s fair to say we’re the hardest hit of the hardest hit. We’re asking for a relief fund, a small slice of that $500 million,” Barrett said.

She says the association would additionally like to see a plan for reopening the border so the affected businesses can plan ahead.

At the moment, they are in limbo, adds Barrett.

Resch is concerned the existing support programs will end before the border reopens, saying his business may only last 30 days without any financial help.

“From where I’m sitting that’s very, very scary.”

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