Asian-Canadian Business Owners Share the Impact of Coronavirus on Work and Life

Six Toronto-based business owners discuss how COVID-19 is affecting them personally and professionally.

Six Toronto-based business owners discuss how COVID-19 is affecting them personally and professionally.

an image of a closed sign in a store window

The rapid, continuous spread of the coronavirus pandemic has been a difficult adjustment for all, particularly with the subsequent quarantining and the ordered closure of all non-essential businesses by Ontario Premier Doug Ford. The latter is a particularly hard hit on small business owners, who, unlike major corporations, lack resources to fall back on and have been forced to close up physical shop with some having to lay off their employees in the process.

According to a survey by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, one in three businesses in Canada say they cannot survive the current coronavirus pandemic conditions for more than a month.

As of March 27th, 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced additional measures to support small businesses dealing with the economic impacts of the pandemic, including a 75 per cent wage subsidy for qualifying businesses, for up to three months, which would help businesses to keep and return workers to the payroll.

However, there is still so much up in the air, especially with government officials hinting that COVID-19 measures expected to last until at least July.

The RepresentASIAN Project spoke to six Toronto-based Asian-Canadian small business owners to see how they’re coping with the unprecedented challenges during this global pandemic. Here’s what they had to say.

[Ed. Note: The following interviews took place prior to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announcing further supports for Canadian small businesses on March 27, 2020.]

Jason Lee, Celebrity Hairstylist and Owner of Jason Lee Salon

On how business has been affected

“We decided to shut down our business on March 17th, which was a week prior to Ontario’s decision to close all non-essential businesses. We knew it was probably a week too early but we felt that it was crucial to keep people safe (staff and clients). We knew the severity of this as I have a friend who is from China who was forewarning the seriousness of this all back in January.  

“The process was overwhelming to shut down. We knew that the 14 days was not really up to us to decide, nor was it going to be enough and that ultimately the Government was going to tell us how long we would be closed for. (We still don’t actually know how long this could go on for). Additionally, other salons were communicating with me and we felt it was the right thing to do to close along with our peers.

Financially we will take a hard hit, but it’s not something we can’t recover from. Businesses who don’t have a cash flow or the ability to take a line of credit will suffer there’s no question. I’m grateful we didn’t just do a major renovation or were already in debt because being closed for a long period of time still incurs expenses such as rent and fees that don’t stop because the world does.  

“The only thing I can say when it comes to my staff is that I realized at some point that I needed to be a strong leader. There is no doubt in my mind that we will reopen and get back down to business when this is all over. I am trying to keep regular group chats going amongst us and I show them that we are strong and this will not take us down. As an owner, my role is to be a confident leader. I hope others do the same because we are in uncertain times and owners need to keep a calm and positive attitude. Nothing good will come from a leader who is anxious and panicking and sharing that with their staff.”

On the shifts in business operations

“Prior to closing, we were wiping down every surface, door handle, chair, railing, etc. with a strong cleaning agent. We were also trying to schedule only a few clients at a time which is much slower for us than usual. We called clients prior to their appointments making sure they hadn’t travelled, been sick or had been in close quarters to anyone who was. If they had, we kindly asked them to re-schedule their appointment. I can only assume that once we pass this time of self-isolation, we will return to these types of practices for a while.  

“The hardest part about all of this will be managing clients when we return. Everyone’s (pre-booked) appointment is being cancelled at the moment and we are already booked months in advance. That means when we come back there will be a huge backlog that we will need to attend to. We will need to work longer hours upon our return in order to fit all of our clients in.”

On the supports offered by the Canadian government

“Everything is still very much up in the air at the moment so we don’t fully understand how the Government is going to be able to fully help us out. That said, if you look at the big picture, Canada is by far one of the greatest countries in the world. The fact that we are even be able to help small businesses and employees who have been laid off is an incredible thing and we need to try to just get through the tough times.  

“Hopefully there will be some relief because loans with lower interest rates and deferred tax payments will just push back the problem. Some businesses will really need some form of a bailout and not just pushing back the expenses. That said, this is part of being a business owner. We have to be the captain of the ship and handle how the business gets through this. The hard part will be for those who will be adding more debt to existing debt.” 

On how he’s been affected personally

“Well at first, I thought I would never experience anything racially related re: COVID-19. For me, sometimes I forget that I’m Asian on the outside! I’m sometimes of the mindset that my ancestors fought those fights for me and that my best asset is to just be a positive example moving forward, but just the other day I was at a high-end grocery store picking up a snack and a woman thought it was appropriate to wave her hand in my face because she didn’t want to move and I was too close to her. It felt personal. I was taken aback by it and I was quite angry about it, but people are very afraid right now. Trust me I’m not excusing her behaviour, but what I do know is that it’s important to see the bigger picture and that when someone is afraid, it won’t help screaming and barking back at them, but rather having a voice of empowerment which is what I try to do everyday. We really can’t start becoming more afraid of one another so I can’t meet her where she’s coming from, I have to just be as good of a version of myself as I can be.

“I think over the first few days of self-isolation, I watched myself go through a bit of a downward spiral emotionally.  I was very stressed and I felt very sorry for myself and everyone around me. By day five, I started feeling like I was turning a new leaf. I recognized that as a business owner, I never get time to be calm and have space to come at life from a new perspective. While I’m not really just hanging around doing nothing, I’ve been working on different business projects and seeing things  in a new light. I think that’s what we all need to try to do is take this time to re-invent ourselves. That’s probably the silver lining here. While the world is shutting down around us, we still have ourselves to depend on. Don’t get me wrong, we definitely have choppy waters ahead, but we might as well try to make the most out of it. With all of the distractions of social media and the speed at which we were all moving at before this, we may have forgotten over time that we still had ourselves to fall back on, and hopefully this is an opportunity to remember that.”

On how others can support his business at this time

“I think for us, it’s just a matter of being patient when things go back to our new normal. At our salon, our level of quality and customer service is set quite high so when we come back to work, it will be a matter of people remembering this time and being patient while we get everyone back in. We can’t just get everyone in at once. It’s going to be an administrative nightmare rescheduling everyone.

“I think there are certain businesses that will benefit from purchasing gift certificates and products online, etc. Those are great ways of helping small businesses out.

“The one thing I am so grateful for has been our loyal clients messaging and asking how they could help and reassuring us that they will be back once this is over. Sometimes it’s just those kind gestures that can help businesses at this moment. Our clients’ support means the world to us and it gives us the strength to push through these tough times.”

“As an owner, my role is to be a confident leader. I hope others do the same because we are in uncertain times and owners need to keep a calm and positive attitude.”

Jason Lee

Jennifer Lau, Co-Founder and Principal, FitSquad, Nike Master Trainer Canada

On how business has been affected

“We made the very difficult decision to close our [FitSquad] doors last Sunday [March 15], ahead of the government-mandated shut down of all indoor recreational activities. This has been an extremely scary time as we have just opened the doors to our new training facility sux months ago. We are unable to generate income as we have put all our client memberships on hold and our staff are now applying for E.I.

“We are focusing now on how we can service our members through online training by offering virtual training.”

On the supports offered by the Canadian government

“It is comforting to know the government will be focused on helping small business owners. What this will actually translates to for us is to be determined as things are changing daily. This has left us unsure and anxious about how we will be supported and if we will be able to recover from this.”

On how she’s been affected personally

“Supporting small businesses, especially Asian-operated and owned is something I have tried to do as an Asian business owner. I have tried to shed light and share the ongoing racism surrounding the virus through social channels to bring awareness to those that may not be affected by it.

The uncertainty of the situation has been frustrating. The unwelcomed opinions and confusion and rumours of those not well informed is quite overwhelming. This has forced us as a business to learn how to adapt. We have also witnessed a tremendous amount of support from our community through, donations and ongoing membership charges.”

On how others can support her business at this time

“We are offering promo items to support the squad, as well as online training programs to help lessen the gap from now and when we can get back into the gym.”

“The uncertainty of the situation has been frustrating. The unwelcomed opinions and confusion and rumours of those not well informed is quite overwhelming. This has forced us as a business to learn how to adapt.”

Jennifer Lau

Sara Koonar, President and Co-Founder of Platform Media & Management Inc.

On how business has been affected

“We have seen a 50 per cent reduction in advertising spend and little visibility into whether that number will increase. Having 50 per cent of our revenues cut, that means we have to make difficult decisions to cut costs inside of the company. And with a company that is already very lean, that is extremely difficult to do.

“All spending on non-essentials has stopped. Also any unnecessary costly software or tools we have been using to optimize our services. I’ve personally stopped taking a salary and had to call my mortgage lender to pause payments for two months. I am selling personal items so I can continue to pay my bills. I’d much rather take the hit personally than have to start eliminating jobs. My team has been working so hard despite all the uncertainty and they should be rewarded for their commitment and drive.

On the shift in content creation by her roster

“Clients and creators are both being very sensitive and thoughtful about what they are posting right now. We are focusing only on campaigns that showcase the influencer staying at home. However we are seeing a lot of feedback from our creators’ audiences that they are very eager for content. So we are trying to find ways to work with brands to create campaigns that work for the time we are in. Like campaigns with a charitable component or helpful tips for how to stay safe at this time.”

On the supports offered by the Canadian government

“I am happy the government has taken steps to help small businesses. Talking amongst some of my entrepreneur friends, the one common complaint is that the BDC government loans are only available to those with a credit score higher than 680. Anyone who has run a small business knows that your credit gets hit a lot because you are constantly borrowing to help with cash flow. So some of the most vulnerable people will not be eligible for these loans. And those who are, probably are in a better financial position, and need them less.”

On how she’s been affected personally

“It is great to see so many people enjoying this time off and using it to better themselves. But it is very difficult to feel any sort of positivity when you are responsible for the livelihoods of so many people that will be affected by this crisis. It is hard not to feel guilty for any pain that will come with the economic hardships we will all be facing. However, I continue to remind myself that we shouldn’t be focused on money, we should be focused on saving lives, and that’s the purpose. 

“It is really difficult to think of a silver lining when people are dying and others are losing their jobs. I think it is a luxury to be able to say that this is a ‘lesson’ or a ‘message from God to slow down’. I find those messages frustrating because those people are likely not facing hardship like a sick parent or lost job.”

On how others can support her business at this time

“We are offering clients the ability to purchase credit so we can continue to support our employees and creators. Many companies have decided to stop advertising out of respect. But if they have the means at the moment to purchase a credit now, to advertise later in the year, it will help keep us in business while we wait.”

“I’ve personally stopped taking a salary and had to call my mortgage lender to pause payments for two months… I’d much rather take the hit personally than have to start eliminating jobs.”

Sara Koonar

Dr. Aliya Visram and Sarina Visram, co-founders, wellbe Family Wellness

On how business has been affected

“[Two weeks ago] we made the tough decision to close the doors to our wellness clinic. It was heartbreaking for not only us, but our patients and our practitioners. We are a service-based business and so this has been a huge hit for us financially. Laying off our customer experience and admin team, cutting expenses and ultimately the huge financial burden for our practitioners who are independent contractors.

We’ve had to pivot our business, literally overnight. We now offer virtual telehealth services. We’ve set up a secure online platform to see patients, we’ve created online webinars, workshops and programs and we continue to support our patients in every way we can from phone calls to email check ins to offering virtual support groups. We continue to explore different ways we can help our community.”

On the supports offered by the Canadian government

“What is being offered is extremely unclear and vague. There hasn’t been anything concrete for small business yet. A lot of promises of things to come — but nothing that has been said has given us any real sense of hope or support.”

On how they’ve been affected personally

“Aliya and her family got back from Mexico on Friday, March 13th — the day COVID-19 escalated. She and her family are now self-isolated, which has been extremely difficult for her kiddos. 

“With school being closed, both of us have kids at home while we try to work on our business. In addition, Sarina also has a full-time day job outside of our business. It’s been super hard and stressful to find time to work on the business.  

“[However], we have the most amazing team and that’s been made even more apparent through all of this. They have been the most supportive and have been by our side since we decided to close for public safety a few days before other businesses made the decision. The outpouring of support from our team has been incredible. The outpouring of support and love from our patients and community has also left us speechless. Patients supporting us and asking how they can help us and that they will be the first through our doors when we re-open has been incredible and has helped us navigate this tough period.

“What’s been super frustrating is that we continue to see businesses open and people not practice social distancing or self isolation if they’ve returned home from abroad. It means that our business will be closed for longer period of time.”

On how others can support their business at this time

“We now offer virtual services which can help support patients in so many ways. We are also daily offering workshops and virtual classes. We will soon be offering gift cards to purchase online. And honestly, just dropping us some love on Instagram :).”

“We’ve had to pivot our business, literally overnight.”

Aliya and Sarina Visram

Sylvia Wong, Calligrapher and Owner of Via Calligraphy

On how business has been affected

“My business has primarily been teaching calligraphy workshops locally here in Toronto and doing live calligraphy on-site at events. Since the recommendation to socially distance as much as possible, all large events were immediately cancelled by brands and event planners and in-person workshops have had to stop. As a result, all of my regular business has come to a complete halt.

“I was doing an average of two workshops monthly and four to six on-site events per month. Financially, I went from around five figures monthly to zero very suddenly as I’ve been cancelling invoices and issuing refunds as well.

“My business was centred around building community and creating connections with others, so with the increased risks of human contact, I’ve had to stop all upcoming work for now as I reassess how to reposition my offerings. Thankfully, some of my courses are already online and I have some art prints and downloadable worksheets that are passive income generators. Right now, I have to spend the time working on how I can logistically move those in-person workshops to online learning.”

On the supports offered by the Canadian government

“As an entrepreneur that runs a business without employees, not many of the benefits apply to me. During the day, I have a career working as a Senior Strategist at a Digital Marketing Agency, so I operate my business as a ‘side hustle’, so I’m grateful for the extension on filing income taxes.”

On how she’s been affected personally

“Being an extrovert, I focused my business offerings around meeting and working with people. The events industry, wedding industry and art industry are all about in-person interactions, which is what I loved most about my work. Having to stay home has been tough because much of that connection factor is gone so I’m dealing with the loss of the social factor.

Personally, I feel the rise in racial microaggressions towards myself and my family have had an uptick. Nothing overt or aggressive has happened, but it’s those cases where you question why certain people behave in ways around you– like making excuses specifically to avoid you. One of the on-site services I offer is engraving and I wear a face mask to avoid inhaling dust. At the last event I worked I was asked if I was wearing it for Coronavirus, which made me uneasy with my appearance as an Asian person in a mask.

“People are finding themselves with a lot of spare time at home, and I began practicing calligraphy myself as a form of self-care. For me it was a great way to get off my screens, focus on something meticulous and methodical, and really slow down. I would find myself immersed in practicing for two to four hours a night and I think it’s potentially something others are looking for at a time like this too. The sliver lining is that I’m equipped to keep teaching this skill, I just need to adjust my business quickly so that I can offer it.”

On how others can support her business during this time

“While I work on making my workshops available online in the next few months, for now, people can support my business by buying my art prints or downloadable worksheets at For the time being, all of us artists can use more follows, shares and general support on social media and leave a review for your favourite local businesses on Google. It helps all of our algorithm signals so that more people can discover our work.”

“Financially, I went from around five figures monthly to zero very suddenly as I’ve been cancelling invoices and issuing refunds as well.”

Sylvia Wong

Will Nguyen, Music Manager and Creative Director

On how business has been affected

The virus has definitely made a big impact on my businesses. In terms of the artists I work with, their shows and gigs have been cancelled. Not sure if festivals will even be the same when this all settles down either. We’re unable to shoot music videos or do any launch events because of social distancing. The inability to do these things has a very real and direct effect on the financial aspects. In terms of the music, we had to take all live components and figure out how to activate digitally, which is something we always knew was important, so this situation is just forcing us to do it now.  I also work in nightlife, so all the clubs being closed def. doesn’t help.

On the supports offered by the Canadian government

In theory, it all sounds good. How this actually works out, we’ll see.

On how he’s been affected personally

Honestly, I think it’s because I live in the city, so I don’t feel any sort of judgement [in terms of racism].

Quarantine is never fun. Being trapped all day breathing the same air isn’t fun. But it’s allowed for my wife and I to be home with the kids. This is the most time we’ve gotten to be together at home in a long time. I want to get back to work and my regular schedule but I’ll also miss these days that have us home together all day.

On how others can support his business during this time

At this time, the best thing to do is just stream the music of my artists: @anders @alwaysnever @ariaohlsson  

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

For more information on the novel coronavirus, click here.