Lockdowns meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 are preventing in-store shopping for all but essential businesses, and the lack of clarity surrounding the orders are making for a less-than-festive season for locals.
As customers wait by the door, Steven Gerry emerged from his midtown Toronto gift shop with a handful of greeting cards and products hoping to make a sale. A woman bought a few and told him that had she been able to come inside to browse she likely would have spent at least another $60.
Gerry sighed and ruefully pointed her down the road to a store where she can mail her cards. He said it’s a store that is allowed to remain open because it’s been deemed an essential service.
Despite his eagerness to help people at the door, Gerry said he’s still losing business from those who would rather browse.
“This is our season obviously,” he said, noting all the Hanukkah and Christmas gifts currently in stock mean “it’s so hard for us to show everything at the door.”
Gerry, like thousands of non-essential business owners, has been struggling to survive during Toronto’s latest lockdown. He recognized that many of his products rely on people browsing, especially the greeting cards. To help, Gerry started putting some on the wide sidewalk in front of his store.
“I have some card spinners and I brought them outside,” said Gerry, adding people were enjoying the ability to browse at their leisure
“But I had some problems with that.”
Last Saturday, Gerry got a visit from a City of Toronto bylaw officer.
While that bylaw officer told him his products had to remain indoors, Gerry said another officer came by a few days later with a completely different attitude.
The free ride didn’t last long and Gerry said the first bylaw officer soon returned.
“He said to me, ‘This is City property.’ I’m aware it’s City property, but I have to shovel my snow when it snows, right?” he questioned.
The tables and spinners, Gerry said, were small enough to not block anyone and he said a little flexibility for struggling stores would go a long way.
Exasperated by the mixed response, Gerry said the double standard has been incredibly hard to swallow. Many retailers have already pointed out the holes in the province’s regulations, arguing they are better suited to manage people in their smaller locations than big box stores.
In response to a question about the matter, Mayor John Tory said “the law is the law,” adding that City regulations don’t allow for much to remain on sidewalks. But Tory said he hoped bylaw officers would be reasonable.
“But there are people who take advantage of that and have it such that you can’t even get by on the sidewalk and I think most people understand that’s not acceptable either,” he said.
In light of the circumstances, Tory said there likely should be more flexibility, much like the City did with parking in the spring.
Fire Chief Matthew Pegg, who is in charge of the City’s emergency management office, said there is no blanket answer for many policies during the pandemic.
Carleton Grant, the City’s head of municipal licensing and standards, said there are rules around displays on the sidewalks.
“We don’t want to hinder business, but we also need to understand what the purpose of that sidewalk is,” he said.
But Grant said the City would be willing to look at the situation with Gerry’s store.
“It is not our intent to be going back and harassing people, but we do need people to comply with the rules,” he said.
Meanwhile, Gerry said he’s just looking for a fair approach while trying his best to keep his business of nearly two decades going. The bylaw officer who keeps coming back, he said, promised another visit this coming weekend.
“We’re all trying our best through COVID and I’m trying to stay afloat by being creative,” said Gerry.
“This is our month of all the months in the year — you know it’s really incredible,” he said, shaking his head.
“We’re all in this together. None of us need the hassle.”