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‘What am I going to do now?’: Entrepreneurs lose hope as COVID-19 rages on

EDMONTON — January 2020 was off to an exciting start for Andrea Wetzel.

The Newmarket, Ont. entrepreneur’s co-working space, HER Place, had attracted enough attention to warrant conversations about franchising opportunities and the space was booked solid with workshops.

Today, ten months after shutting the doors to HER Place for good, Wetzel refers to herself as a “semi-retired” entrepreneur.

“When I made the decision [to shut down the business] in June – when I made those phone calls and let the community know – it was honestly like a break up,” Wetzel told CTVNews.ca by phone Tuesday.

“I remember crawling back into bed and I was just so upset. I thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’ I thought I had life all planned out. It was such a calling for me to create a space like this, to create this community, because there was just such a need for it.”

HER Place, a collaborative workspace for people who identify as women, was born out of Wetzel’s passion for all things entrepreneurship.

Her vision was to create a space where women come together to learn from and support one another, grow their community, educate themselves and take tangible action towards their businesses and personal development.

It was a space rooted in in-person interactions – one that suddenly had no place in the pandemic world.

“I remember standing in the space alone… and thinking the whole point of this business is that it’s a space to come together. The last thing I wanted to do was think about changing this to an online space,” said Wetzel.

Thanks to an understanding landlord, Wetzel held out hope for months, holding occasional online workshops and discussion groups. But with no income coming in, she feared she would blow through her savings in an effort to keep HER Place alive.

In June, she came to the difficult decision to shutter the business altogether.​

“It kicked my butt. And it took away a good portion of that entrepreneurial drive that I had left,” she said.

‘A COMEDY OF ERRORS’

According to Statistics Canada, some 58,000 businesses became inactive in 2020. But that number could rise to more than 200,000 by the end of the pandemic, jeopardizing nearly three million private-sector jobs in the worst-case scenario, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business’ (CFIB) estimates.

In January, the organization estimated that 181,000 Canadian entrepreneurs were seriously considering closing down their businesses after a new wave of government lockdowns and restrictions.

Despite increasing optimism over vaccinations, several provinces remain in a precarious position in terms of rising caseloads, renewing concerns about a third wave.

In Montreal, where current restrictions bar in-person dining, restaurant owner Michael Maturo describes the experience as a “comedy of errors,” noting that while nation-wide subsidies like the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) and Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) help entrepreneurs, they still fall short of making a dent.

“It’s not enough. They say ‘we’re going to help you,’ but not entirely,” Maturo told CTVNews.ca by phone last week, adding that he is grateful for the help he has received.

“But I have two kids, I have a mortgage, I haven’t taken a paycheque in a year. We need more help.”

But the bigger struggle, Maturo says, is the moral responsibility to his community.

“Morally, I don’t want people to get sick. We’re Canadians and one person getting sick is one too many,” he said. “But it would really hurt my heart to close this restaurant.”

For business owners who were just setting out on their entrepreneurial journey – those who don’t qualify for government assistance – the future remains murky.

“We’re at a point where we were getting a lot of traction and interest and all of that momentum is gone,” Patricia Demes, owner of Once Upon a Chocolate Chocolatiers Inc. in Alberta, told CTVNews.ca by phone last week.

“What do you do now? Do we plan on starting again this fall? Will things be open enough? If I had a crystal ball and I knew the economy was going to bounce back, we have ideas for the future, but there’s just so much uncertainty.”

Yet, as uncertain times tick on for many, some remain hopeful that the pandemic will drum up greater support for small business owners.

“When I’m old and grey and looking back, I know there won’t be any regret. I’ll look back on [my journey] with so much pride,” said Wetzel.

“From a personal standpoint, this has really helped me see that the ‘hustle lifestyle’ wasn’t going to sustain me… I think a lot of entrepreneurs can relate to that. As we move forward, I think there’s going to be a big influx of mental health issues, and that’s the next big question. What more can we do to support entrepreneurs?”

  • HERplace

    HER Place, a collaborative workspace for people who identify as women, shut its doors permanently in June 2020 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Andrea Wetzel)

  • HERPlace

    Andrea Wetzel, pictured here in her former office at her co-working space, HER Place. (Andrea Wetzel)

  • Maturo

    Michael Maturo pictured with his team at his Montreal-area restaurant. (Michael Maturo)

  • Chocolates

    The future of Once Upon a Chocolate Chocolatiers Inc. chocolates, produced locally in Alberta, remains unclear. (Patricia Demes)






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