COVID-19: ‘They’ve jacked the prices so high’: Alberta businesses frustrated over rising PPE costs

Alberta businesses are frustrated by rising costs of personal protective equipment (PPE) and order delays as the government moves to wean them off the provincial supply by July 1.

When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March and global supply of PPE started to run low, the province attempted to address the shortfall by supplying businesses with items such as masks, gloves, face shields and disinfectant for free. That changed on May 25 when the UCP government announced businesses may continue to request supplies from the province until June 30 for a fee. After that, they need to find their own suppliers.

COVID-19: ‘They’ve jacked the prices so high’: Alberta businesses frustrated over rising PPE costs

Leduc and Wetaskiwin Regional Chamber of Commerce president Brett Powlesland said he didn’t expect the province to cut businesses off weeks after allowing some to reopen under the provincial relaunch.

“I figured they were at least going to get people through the summer months and to get people back on their feet,” he said. “The cost burden for PPE starting in July will be an unexpected liability for most businesses that have never had to carry this sort of thing in their office or in their place of business. When these costs are being applied to already struggling (small-to-medium sized businesses) it’s a tough pill to swallow.”

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He said the question businesses are now considering is whether they should pass on that extra cost to customers.

Tenielle MaGee, owner of Leduc Physio, has noticed the price of PPE has gone up since the pandemic started. 

MaGee, who has been in business for 17 years, said a procedural mask from a private distributor used to cost about 40 cents but the price has now jumped to about $2; a box of gloves costs nearly $20 when it used to be $10.

Physiotherapy clinics were among the first to reopen in the province on May 4 with many more businesses following suit 10 days later. Under the province’s public health orders, physiotherapists are required to wear procedural masks when seeing patients.

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“I get that we are going to have to pay for it but I also find it extremely frustrating that they’ve jacked the prices so high,” MaGee said. “I get I have to wear a mask but why does everyone have to take advantage of that financially?”

She noted the province is charging similar prices.

Costs haven’t been MaGee’s only challenge with PPE.

MaGee put in her request to the province on May 3 and received her supply a week later. Thankfully, she said, she had enough supplies on hand to open on May 4 after putting in orders with independent suppliers in March and April before physiotherapists could request PPE from the province. She said in some cases she waited up to a month to get supplies from private companies.

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Some of MaGee’s massage therapists are currently waiting for shipments from suppliers. All of them are independent contractors and will be required to wear masks when they are allowed to return to work during Stage 2 of Alberta’s relaunch strategy, which is expected to happen as early as June 19.

MaGee said she has encouraged them to access the government’s supply before the end of June. If they aren’t able to find any, she said she may offer to sell them some of hers.

Prior to the pandemic, businesses had to purchase their own PPE from companies. Timothy Gerwing, press secretary for Minister of Municipal Affairs Kaycee Madu, said in an email that the government is shifting the responsibility of finding a supply chain for PPE back onto businesses.He said the government is continuing to provide PPE to those at higher risk of exposure of the virus, such as hospital workers, first responders, senior care facilities and workers at homeless shelters. 

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Businesses who aren’t sure how to source their own supply can find approved vendor information on the government’s BizConnect website, Gerwing said.

MaGee said she tried the BizConnect website, butno one responded to her order request. Instead, she turned to Amazon and said she has gotten supplies shipped to her quickly and at “regular cost again.”

Ian O’Donnell, executive director of the Downtown Business Association, said he doesn’t disagree with the idea of businesses finding their own PPE suppliers in the long term, however, the province should step in if there are delays.

“If the barrier of entry is simply PPE … if that’s what is between an entrepreneur reopening their business and not, then any kind of assistance program won’t matter unless they have that PPE to adhere to guidelines and directives,” he said.

Meanwhile, the UCP government announced on Friday 20 million non-medical masks will be distributed to Albertans, primarily through Tim Hortons, McDonald’s and A&W drive-thrus starting in early June.

Masks will be provided in packages of four and will be available at nearly 600 restaurants across Alberta. The masks will be available only at drive-thrus while supplies last.

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