CALGARY -- Tony Stephen's Calgary dry cleaning company used to clean and press thousands of garments every day, but the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrinkle into business.

"It kind of sucked from a business point of view," says Stephen, the CEO of Tower Cleaners.

His business is made up of 25 locations in Calgary and Airdrie and a massive central facility cleans, steams, presses and packages everything from wedding dresses to airplane blankets.

More people have been working from home, opting for sweat pants instead of suits. Office towers are mostly empty, the hospitality industry has been hit hard and the daily deliveries of shirts, pants and uniforms have slowed.

"Our downtown stores are currently down 80 per cent (in business). We've got six of our stores that are currently closed," Stephen says.

He says that prior to the pandemic, his employees cleaned and folded 6,000 lbs of gym towels every day. With gyms and fitness facilities limited, the machines mostly sit quiet.

Tony, dry, cleaning, Stephen, Calgary, Tower

Alberta business debt is climbing

Restaurants still face restrictions and some retail shops have reduced hours. It's all contributed to an increasing amount of debt small businesses are facing.

"Collectively, small businesses across the province have taken on $21 billion worth of debt, which equates to an average of around $168,000 per small business in COVID-19-related debt," explains Annie Dormuth of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). That number is up from $18 billion back in July.

The group's most recent report shows three quarters of small business owners say it'll take more than a year for them to repay their debt. 11 per cent of operators worry they'll never be able to cover the debt they owe.

The CFIB says government support programs for small businesses need to continue, even well after the pandemic is in the rear view mirror.

"Unfortunately for a lot of those sectors, there is no end in sight for when they can get back to profitability," Dormuth says.