The list of businesses considered essential under Manitoba’s latest round of COVID-19 restrictions — and how they’re allowed to operate — may soon be changing, and Manitoba’s top doctor says those who have been skirting the rules can expect stricter enforcement.
On Monday Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public officer of health, called out businesses he says are looking for loopholes to stay open and others exceeding capacity limits under strict code red restrictions put in place across the province last week.
“There’s a number of places now that have found ways to try to be in the critical category by by just selling small amounts of something that listed critical and then therefore stay open outright,” he said, adding stores flouting the rules encourage too many Manitobans to leave their homes during the pandemic.
“We saw examples of that not occurring on the weekend, we saw examples of stores that were open as if there is no such thing as COVID.
“We saw a packed parking lots, we saw crowded stores. We’re seeing double digits of death rates, hundreds of cases each each day — we can’t go on in this manner.”
The government last week closed restaurants, bars, gyms, non-essential retail stores and other facilities in an attempt to reduce increasing COVID-19 caseloads.
But under the latest health orders stores that supply items deemed essential — a long list that includes groceries, personal hygiene, prescription drugs, computer equipment, hardware, cleaning supplies, and office supplies — are allowed to remain open at 25 per cent of normal capacity.
Big-box stores that offer those essentials can continue to sell non-essential goods as well.
Earlier in the day Monday the Canadian Federation of Independent Business warned retailers that are benefitting the most from efforts to expand the definition of an essential products tend to be bigger stores with more products from which to be deemed essential.
Federation president, Dan Kelly, told The Canadian Press the outcome is that some stores can remain open while similar retailers are forced to close.
“It’s creating an unfair playing field,” he said. “The trend we see is larger retailers and big box stores are remaining open, while smaller independent stores are closed.”
Kelly said while a local bookstore is shuttered, for example, shoppers can still buy books at large retailers like Walmart and Costco, which are allowed to stay open because of the essential items they also sell.
“The independent flower shop is fully closed but you can buy fresh flowers at the grocery store,” he added.
But Diane Brisebois, Retail Council of Canada president and CEO, said the suggestion that lockdowns only hurt small retailers is a “false narrative.”
She said the tighter restrictions and lockdowns tend to hurt certain categories of retail, regardless of size.
“It’s a misconception,” Brisebois said. “Those who are not considered essential include small, medium and large businesses.”
Brisebois said the bigger issue right now is the widespread confusion among both retailers and consumers about what the rules are.
She said the lack of clear, harmonized rules — even within the same province, in some cases — is leaving shoppers unsure about what’s open or closed.
Both Roussin and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister hinted that retail restrictions could be further tightened if stores and shoppers don’t get the message.
“That doesn’t seem to me very fair,” Pallister said of some stores being allowed to stay open while others close.
“We’re seeing some advantage being taken and because of that, we’re forced to act to counter that.”
Manitoba has reported more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases and 35 deaths in the last three days and the province continues to lead the country in the number of active cases per capita.
— With files from Global’s Brittany Greenslade and The Canadian Press
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
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. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.
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