Coronavirus: Ontario greenhouse ordered closed for ‘operating illegally’ despite being considered ‘essential’

Click to play video: 'Markham greenhouse closed down for ‘operating illegally’ although business considered essential'
Markham greenhouse closed down for ‘operating illegally’ although business considered essential
WATCH: The owner of a Markham, Ont., greenhouse says his business was shut down by police for violating emergency orders put in place by the province although it’s zoned agricultural and therefore deemed essential – May 5, 2020

York Regional Police have shut down a Markham, Ont., greenhouse following complaints that it was operating over the weekend, allowing customers inside amid emergency measures put in place by the province that limit what businesses can and cannot open during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We’re given direction from the province on what is essential and what is non-essential, and I know our officers in this particular case did some great work, did their research, really looked into this and didn’t make a quick decision,” explained Sgt. Andy Pattenden.

But questions are being raised as to whether it was the right decision.

“We tried to explain to them the difference between a greenhouse and a garden centre, and they didn’t want to hear anything about it,” explained Larry Varlese, one of the owners of Valley Farm Gardens.

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According to the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, the property is zoned a “farm without residence” and falls under agricultural zoning.

Agriculture is part of the provincial list of essential businesses, listed under “Agriculture and food production.” According to Section 24 of the list, “businesses that produce food and beverages, and agricultural products, animal products and byproducts” are allowed to open.

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“We’ve consulted with as many people as we can consult with to make sure that we’re following all the rules, and it seems that that’s not even good enough these days,” said Varlese.

He also said he contacted the government’s information line for more clarification and Flowers Canada, an organization that supports more than 1,900 growers in Canada.

Global News contacted Ontario Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade Minister Vic Fedeli, but was referred by a spokesperson to an online portal for essential businesses.

“Business owners, including non-profits and service delivery organizations, should review the list of essential business which are authorized to stay open, determine whether they fit into any of the categories and if they do, make a business decision as to whether to stay open,” wrote Rebecca Bozzato.

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The executive director of Flowers Canada said his organization is looking to clarify following numerous inquires from growers across Ontario, including in Niagara Region.

“It breaks your heart when you see a business like that go through something like this, and that’s why it’s important for us to get that clarity to ensure we find a way to enable them to continue to do business safely,” explained Andrew Morse.

Morse said 60 per cent of sales across the sector happen between Easter and Mother’s Day and curbside pickup isn’t enough to subsidize lost revenue.

“Any businesses that do that may be better off not operating at all because it will cost them more to operate if they can only make 20 to 30 per cent of their expected sale. The businesses just aren’t viable when it’s limited to just curbside,” he said.

The Ontario NDP critic for agriculture and food said he has been fielding a number of calls and inquires from farmers as they try to interpret the list of essential businesses.

“Right now, when people are hanging onto every word the premier says, you have to be very careful in what you say,” said John Vanthof.

He said Premier Doug Ford’s announcement about the reopening of garden centres for curbside pickups and deliveries inflicted more confusion than anything as the businesses were already doing that.

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“I feel for the people both running these businesses and for the people having to enforce these rules,” added Vanthof, a retired dairy and cash crop farmer.

Meanwhile, Valley View Farms will remain closed until it’s given proper clarification. But as Ontario inches closer to Mother’s Day weekend, there’s a serious concern about how the reopening announcement could have on the industry.

“We’re hoping that Premier Ford finally makes up his mind and decides what he wants to do. He said (on Monday) that he agrees that it’s an unfair system that’s in place, but he still hasn’t done anything about it,” explained Varlese.

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