Coronavirus: Market traders ‘feel abandoned’ over hardship fund

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There has been a market at St George’s site in Belfast since the 1600s.

It has survived world wars and The Troubles but will it survive coronavirus?

Many small businesses forced to close in the pandemic had been hoping for financial help with the announcement of a micro-business hardship fund from the Northern Ireland Executive.

But some who operate as sole traders do not qualify because they do not have employees.

They include many of the stall holders at St George’s Market in Belfast.

Without financial support, traders worry they will fall through the cracks.

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Cathy McLaverty says traders do not know “who will survive”

Cathy McLaverty is the chairperson of the St George’s Market Trader Committee.

She said her members feel abandoned.

“When we do reopen, the difference of coming back into this building, as opposed to the High Street is, the High Street has had all the financial help, and support,” she said.

“We haven’t, and we don’t know who will survive.”

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Sean McCann had to close his stall

Sean McCann had to close his hot food stall at St George’s market seven weeks ago.

“St George’s isn’t the building, it’s the people,” he said.

“We built it, our customers built it, and now we’ve hit hard times and there are people in here who have nothing, and are getting nothing.”

It is not just market traders who cannot get money to support their business.

MLA Caoimhe Archibald is Sinn Féin’s economy spokesperson.

“It’s everyone from hairdressers and barbers to photographers; it’s a wide variety of people who are impacted,” she said.

“Many of them who are contacting me haven’t been able to access the other support schemes.

“They had hoped the hardship fund would be a lifeline, many of them now feel bewildered, devastated and let down.

“It’s those people I would be urging the department to amend the criteria for, and ensure that they can be included.”

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Before coronavirus, St George’s Market was usually bustling

In a statement, the Department for the Economy said: “There is a limit to the funding available for the economic support schemes and it is recognised this will not be able to support all those calling for assistance.

“We will continue to monitor the situation and consider where any additional funding available could best be utilised.

“Self-employed sole traders with employees may be eligible for the NI Micro-business Hardship Fund although we appreciate that the majority of St George’s market traders may not fall into this category.”

Preparations are already under way for the market to reopen.

Traders do not know when that will be, but their focus, for now, is surviving until that day comes.

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