One Year On...Coping with the Covid pandemic (Part#3)

Mis à jour : mars 22

With the success of the summer bookings I was generally feeling more positive and was enjoying looking after my furry friends once again. My optimism for the future was rather short-lived though, as moving in to September and the rentrée...well, the bookings slowed down to a trickle once again. Usually I would be fully booked with my British retirees taking cruises or Mediterranean holidays whilst the weather was still good and the flights were cheaper...not this time due to continued travel restrictions. Most countries, including the UK, had introduced a 2-week quarantine rule for anyone arriving from overseas. In effect this meant that anyone planning to take a 2 week holiday either in the UK or elsewhere outside of France, would spend the entire time in quarantine, so there was little point in taking the holiday at all! A few of my clients decided to pack up their camper vans and go touring through France, but they were far and few between so instead of the usual 80% occupancy levels for September I had an average of about 20%.

In addition, the 6-month 'pause' that the bank had granted me for the business loan repayments was up and the repayments were reinstated despite my request for a further extension. Not forgetting the VAT bill that was due for the income received during July and August and the ongoing social security cotisations. So once again I was trying to pay 100% of the outgoings with only 20% of income and no sign of any further financial help from the government. I was very thankful that I had the foresight to ask for the Bounce-back loan earlier on in the year and found that I was having to use it just to survive.

It was time to act and I started my campaign of trying to raise awareness about how boarding kennels and catteries were impacted by the lack of tourism and should be linked to the tourism / hospitality sectors in order to get the same help that those sectors were getting. The Fonds de Solidarite aid (FDS) was initially granted until the end of May, but had been extended to the end of June, by which time most businesses other than tourism / hospitality should have been able to get back to some sort of normality. Bars, hotels and restaurants could still access this help after that time, as could any other business sector that was considered to be directly linked to the tourism and hospitality sectors and which appeared on a specific list drawn up by the government. Kennels and catteries didn't appear on this list and therefore were not eligible for this much needed financial aid. Earlier on in the year I joined a professional syndicate, the SNPCC, an organisation dedicated to represent people working within the pet-care sector, such as kennel and cattery owners, breeders, groomers and trainers. Their representatives held long discussions with the various ministers and government bodies to try and get our business sector added to the famous list, but as each week passed without any progress we (the kennels and cattery sector) felt that we were simply being ignored and overlooked.

I started contacting newspapers and lobbying various ministers and deputies and eventually sent a letter to President Macron himself (still waiting for a reply though!!). By October I'd started to make a bit of noise and had a few articles appearing in some of the local papers, eventually leading to a TV interview which was the most nerve-wracking experience of my life! I am definitely not suited to life in front of a camera and much prefer working behind the scenes!

The number of cases of Covid started to rise dramatically, as was expected after the schools reopened, and by mid-October curfews were introduced in the worst affected areas of France. The uncertainty about further restrictions and the worrying rate at which the virus was spreading meant that the October school holiday bookings, usually another busy period for me, didn't materialise. On the 28th October President Macron announced a new nationwide lockdown until the 28th November so once again the kennels and cattery were empty and there was still no indication that our business sector would be added to the list of eligible businesses that could get the FDS help.

Finally, at the beginning of November we got the news that we were hoping for – kennels and catteries now appeared on the S1bis list of business sectors impacted by the lack of tourism and we would now be eligible for the Fonds de Solidarite! With empty kennels due to the November lockdown, the relief was enormous and I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders. If only it was that simple...!

The FDS is not automatically paid out. It has to be applied for each month via an online application process and then approved by the tax office before any payment is made. As a general rule the application lines open about 2-3 weeks after the end of the month that you are applying for. Confident that I fulfilled the strict criteria (loss of more than 50% of turnover for the month being claimed for compared to the same month the previous year AND a loss of more than 80% of turnover between 15th March and 15th May) I sent off my application for September. It was rejected within a few days: “your sector of business activity does not appear on the list of eligible business activities”. I couldn't believe what I was reading after fighting so hard to get on this list. I re-applied and was once again rejected. I appealed and heard nothing back for several weeks. At the end of November the applications were open for the October claims, so I went through the whole procedure again...and was rejected within a few hours. It became clear I wasn't the only one having this problem – according to the SNPCC forum the majority of us were getting the same message, although some were getting approved and had already received their payments. It seems there may have been a glitch in the system leading to all these automatic rejections but it didn't resolve the fact that without any income at all for November and very little for the previous 2 months, things were getting increasingly difficult. At my lowest point I even considered selling up – I couldn't see any other way to repay the business bank loan. But that wouldn't work....who would want to buy a kennels and cattery business at a time when the industry was on it's knees? Besides there were so many unfinished jobs to do to the house and business to make it saleable. Where would I go? What would / could I do as a job? I don't know anything else other than working with animals and a bit of accounting. No...I just had to grit my teeth and carry on fighting!

I spent the rest of the November lockdown looking for ways to bring in some much-needed money and considered doing a basic grooming course. There are intensive courses in the UK (anything from 2-6 weeks) but obviously with the lockdown and serious concerns about the new variants in the UK, travelling there wasn't an option. So I started researching grooming courses here in France but couldn't find a similar intensive course. The courses over here take 8 or 9 months to complete and the practical experience would be working as an apprentice in a salon. Ever hopeful that the Covid situation would ease, I couldn't consider the idea of being away from the kennels for 8 or 9 months, and besides, by the time I qualified the kennels would (theoretically) be so busy again that I wouldn't have time to do any grooming! Oh, and there was the small matter of my historical shoulder and neck problems which I doubt would be helped by the repetitive grooming actions. So, grooming wasn't an option. Time to look for something else...

Pet supplies! Why not make some Christmas Stockings for dogs and cats, filled with treats and toys? I could also keep toys and pet supplies in stock and start a small shop...online to begin with due to lockdown, but with the view to having a physical shop later on. The search began for a wholesaler but proved more difficult than I thought. Eventually I found a website that sells pallets of goods that were either end of line, or returned orders and suchlike. Conscious of fake websites and scammers I made a point of checking this particular company out, verified that it was Siret registered and checked with InfoGreffe that it was legitimate and that there were contact details and a physical address etc. Happy that all was above board, in mid-November I decided to part with a few hundred euros from my bounce-back loan and placed an order for 2 pallets of pet supplies and toys. Delivery was estimated at 3-4 days which left me enough time to prepare the Christmas Stockings, and catch the pre-Christmas market once lockdown finished at the end of November. A week passed and my order hadn't arrived. I tried contacting the supplier but couldn't get through to anyone. Another week passed and no sign of the order and no reply to emails or phone messages. The two tracking numbers that had been supplied showed that one of the pallets hadn't even been handed in to the transport company. The other pallet was constantly 'in transit'. Finally, on the 16th December, almost 4 weeks after I placed my order, I got a message saying that one of the orders was ready to collect from the Mondial Relay collection point in St. Hilaire. I had missed the window of opportunity to get these goods advertised and sold in time for Christmas but at least I could continue with the 'shop' idea. So, we hitched the trailer to the car and went to collect my pallet of toys. You can imagine my surprise when, instead of a pallet, I was handed a single large cardboard box. As soon as I got home I messaged the supplier to query it and received a reply saying that the majority of the order was in the second consignment and the tracking number showed that it was once again 'in transit'. I was relieved to get a message the following day saying that the second pallet was now ready for collection at the same Mondial Relay collection point. Phew! Once again the trailer was hitched up and off we went to collect the second pallet. Once again I was handed a single cardboard box, slightly larger than the first, but in no way did it represent a pallet. By the time I got home I was absolutely fuming and contacted the supplier asking for an explanation...no reply, excuse or explanation forthcoming. I had been scammed...

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement but by now the November lockdown had eased and there were a few booking enquiries for Christmas. I spent hours sewing cat toys and drawstring bags to sell in a hope to claw back at least some of the money spent on the 'pallets' of toys, even though Christmas was just over a week away. I am very grateful to my clients who bought my stockings and gifts, but due to how late they came onto the market the project wasn't as successful as I had hoped it would be.

Christmas came and went in a blur, and over a period of about 5 days the kennels and cattery were about 50% full, with just 10-15% occupancy either side of Christmas. My applications for the FDS were rejected over and over again due to the glitch in the system until finally, on the 28th December, I got the news I was waiting for! After all the fighting, the appeals and the desperation, my applications for September, October and November had been approved and the FDS was paid into my bank. After such a difficult year, 2020 was ending on a high and I could breathe a sigh of relief.

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