Hamilton cannabis stores adjusting operations in response to COVID-19

Ancaster Joint, which has been open for about a month, is reducing its hours and modifying operations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML

Hamilton, Ont., cannabis stores are among the local businesses trying to navigate a retail environment in the middle of a pandemic.

One of the city’s newest stores, Ancaster Joint, has only been open for about a month, and manager Kate MacLaggan said there was no way of knowing how COVID-19 would have an impact on them.

“We are newbies,” she laughed. “This wasn’t part of the ‘opening the new business’ plan.”

Ancaster Joint is one of four cannabis stores currently operating in Hamilton, along with Tokyo Smoke Rymal, Cabbage Brothers in Dundas, and Canna Cabana on Barton Street.

MacLaggan said their store has been especially busy, with customers seemingly engaging in ‘panic buying’ and stocking up on supplies.

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“Folks sort of doing the similar stockpile that might be doing with other essential items, we’re seeing them come and do that here,” said MacLaggan.

“We’re seeing more first-timers. So folks who are kind of thinking that they’re about to be stranded in their home for goodness knows how long and perhaps this would be an interesting time for them to start with cannabis and see how it might have an effect at this time, when we’re all kind of peaked out, and feeling very anxious and overwhelmed.”

There has also been a high demand for non-smoking products like oils and capsules, which she said are “flying off the shelves.”

“I don’t know if they’re preparing for a worst-case scenario of not being able to inhale their cannabis, should they get sick.”

MacLaggan said they’ve made some adjustments to operations at the store, including keeping employees — who wear latex gloves — serving from behind the counter, shutting off self-serve iPads, and reducing store hours. They haven’t had to lower the limit on the number of customers allowed in the store at one time, but MacLaggan said that’s likely because of their location on the outskirts of the city, which means they don’t get a lot of foot traffic.

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Cabbage Brothers, formerly known as Hello Cannabis, is more centrally located at its Cootes Drive location in Dundas, and general manager Oliver Coppolino said they’ve lowered the customer limit and will be reducing their hours starting on Sunday.

“We’re just kind of promoting that social distancing, trying to keep people at a certain distance from one other,” said Coppolino. “We’re also limiting customers in-store to 12 and making sure that they’re spread out. We’re wiping down surfaces very, very regularly with a bleach solution or hydrogen peroxide solution. Also, the staff here have latex and Nyplex gloves available to them — whatever personal protective equipment they find necessary. We also have hand sanitizer available for the staff and the public.”

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Staff are also permitted to stay home if they’re not comfortable working, Coppolino said.

“There are some people who have chosen not to come into work. We’re very supportive of them. And then we have staff who are still very comfortable coming into work, and are choosing to protect the supply chain of cannabis for the community.”

Like Ancaster Joint, Coppolino said Cabbage Brothers has also seen a spike in business following the escalation of the COVID-19 situation more than a week ago, after Hamilton saw its first positive case.

“There’s definitely been sort of that crowd mentality, that people need to stock up on product,” said Coppolino. “We’ve seen a lot of big sales in certain days, but things have certainly calmed down in the last couple of days.”

Hamilton’s two other cannabis stores, Tokyo Smoke Rymal and Canna Cabana, have seen similar activity since the virus began to pop up locally.

Amanda Payson, manager at Tokyo Smoke Rymal, emailed the following statement to Global News:

“The safety of our guests and store team remains a top priority at Tokyo Smoke Rymal and we continue to monitor provincial guidance that is being disseminated. We are limiting the number of customers in the store to 4 at a time, and have markers placed 2 meters apart outside the store to encourage social distancing. Store hours have also been reduced to limit exposure. In addition, we have removed all scent orbs and accessories, and are increasing cleaning efforts as well as frequency while holding off on all community events in-store until further notice.”

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A spokesperson for Canna Cabana responded to questions from Global News via email.

“Interestingly, we’ve heard anecdotal accounts of new customers who buy from the black market deciding to purchase legally at this time, thanks to the high safety standards of Health Canada regulated legal cannabis,” wrote Andy Palalas, chief revenue officer for High Tide Inc., which oversees cannabis retail outlets across Canada.

Palalas wrote that they’re also limiting the number of customers in-store at their locations and working on implementing an “order online, pick up in-store” model. Each store, he added, is also being provided with cleaning supplies and protective equipment, and when those resources are in short supply, stores are closed until they’re re-stocked – which happened in Hamilton this week.

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Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML. Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML

While it remains impossible to predict how long the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to have major impacts on life in Canada, MacLaggan said she’s been checking in with employees to see how they’re faring, and encouraging them to stay home if they’re struggling.

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“We’re having conversations a lot as a staff, like, ‘How are we all feeling? What do people need? How does it feel to come into work?’ I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re forced to come into work.”

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They’re also checking in with customers, MacLaggan said, who may be coming into their store to seek relief through cannabis.

“It’s not easy for folks right now. There’s a lot going on beyond the surface and under the skin and behind the scenes for a lot of people.”

The provincial government has not mentioned whether it will consider closing cannabis and liquor stores if the virus continues to spread.

The Ontario Cannabis Store, which supplies all of the province’s cannabis stores, said they’re operating normally, also noting an increase in online sales this past weekend.

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Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

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Health officials say the risk is low for Canadians but warn this could change quickly. They caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

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