WINDSOR, ONT. -- A program meant to help small businesses pay rent during the COVID-19 pandemic is falling well short of the goal, according to business advocates.

According to the lobby group Save Small Business, just six per cent of eligible small businesses are benefiting from the Canadian Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program across the country.

“The fundamental problem is that we’re only seeing half the businesses participate,” said Aleem Kanji, a spokesperson with the group.

A survey of about 1,600 respondents done by the group shows just 45 per cent say their landlord had applied for the CECRA program while 41 per cent said ‘no’ and another 14 per cent weren’t sure.

“The other number that jumps out is that half of businesses say that they’re unlikely or unsure to survive post-pandemic,” said Kanji.

According to Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, Rakesh Naidu, some of those numbers are even more bleak — with surveys showing just 10 or 12 per cent of landlords applying to the program.

“It is the number one issue that businesses need help in,” said Naidu.

The rent relief program, launched in April, is a key pillar of federal and provincial government’s response to the pandemic measures which shutdown businesses in the name of public health.

Chambers of Commerce advocated for the rent relief program as a necessity.

While Naidu credits the government for coming to the table with targeted rent relief, he feels the program misses the mark due to its complexity and eligibility requirements.

In particular, Naidu sees the threshold of 70 per cent revenue loss for a business as a particularly high bar.

“Imagine if a business is around after four months, consecutive months of 70 per cent reduction in revenue — guess how many of them are going to be able to come back? A handful,” said Naidu.

In addition to lowering the revenue loss threshold, Naidu would like to see the CECRA extended to 2021, opened to allow direct tenant applications and would also like the government to increase the amount forgivable as part of the Canadian Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loans.

Kanji warns without quick action, main streets across the country could be decimated.

He points to the Windsor-Essex region as an example of a small business sector hit hard after being the last region in the province to more fully open as a part of Ontario’s reopening plan following pandemic lockdowns.

“The fact that this region is the last in the country to enter Stage 2. The fact that it faces the highest unemployment in the country. It’s even more important for the government to pay close attention to what’s happening in cities like Windsor,” said Kanji.

Despite the extension of CECRA through to the end of July, the Save Small Business group points to just 25,600 applications leading to a total of $194 million in rent relief — leaving 375,000 small businesses in Canada without any rent assistance.