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Small business group slams new Ontario COVID-19 retail restrictions

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WATCH ABOVE: Data from Environics Analytics shows the number of shoppers visiting Ontario shopping centres surged in the days ahead of the provincewide lockdown. Shallima Maharaj reports. – Jan 11, 2021

TORONTO — The Canadian Federation of Independent Business is criticizing new provincial lockdown rules in Ontario, saying they are unfair to small businesses.

For the 28 days beginning Thursday, Ontario’s non-essential retail stores can only open between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said on Tuesday that grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores and gas stations can keep their regular hours.

The new rules come after the province’s lastest models suggested that without new restrictions, daily COVID-19 deaths could double between now and the end of February, with Ontario Premier Doug Ford warning the health care system is “on the brink of collapse.”

Read more: Coronavirus: Ontario declares 2nd state of emergency, issues stay-at-home order

CFIB president Dan Kelly said he worries the new policies limiting opening hours risk further crowding at essential retailers like Walmart stores or Amazon warehouses instead. (Walmart Canada said it will comply with government restrictions and continue using a custom app to count capacity, as well as doing temperature checks for associates and other wellness measures.)

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“We think that allowing small firms to serve one or three customers at a time would actually take the pressure off of the big box stores,” said Kelly.

Kelly said the policies announced by Ford’s government are confusing for non-essential retailers, which are being told they can stay open with limited hours even as their customers are told that non-essential trips are banned altogether.

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“I don’t understand why a small bookstore can’t hand the book — outdoors — to a customer after eight. But you can line up at Costco and buy it,” Kelly said.

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“If you send a product to a third-party delivery (service), like through the mail or through a courier, the … restriction won’t exist. But if you, as a business owner, happen to deliver it on your way home to your customer nearby, that’s prohibited. And we’re struggling to figure out on what planet that helps stop the spread of COVID.”

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Kelly says his group, which represents 42,000 Ontario businesses, isn’t calling for stores to be wide open, but would like to see restrictions closer to those enacted by British Columbia.

“Ford has toasted his relationship with small business owners,” said Kelly. “No province in Canada has locked down small retailers while allowing box stores to remain open. Not a single one. All of them have medical offices of health advisors at the provincial and municipal level.”

Read more: COVID-19 deaths in Ontario’s 2nd wave to exceed 1st if contacts aren’t reduced, modelling suggests

Yet other business groups had praise for Ontario’s new policies.

Two construction industry groups said the new restrictions on its industry, which are similar to those seen last April, are necessary.

“While the new restrictions will slow the delivery of new housing for some projects, case levels have gotten to the point that all sectors and residents must be part of the solution,” said a joint statement the Building Industry and Land Development Association and the Ontario Home Builders’ Association.

“The government of Ontario continues to show confidence in the construction industry to operate in a safe environment … We will continue to work with members to remind them of the immense responsibility that comes with Essential Workplace designation under the Emergency Orders.”

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The Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters group applauded a policy it said would improve workplace safety by allowing more access to COVID-19 testing.

“The manufacturing sector has worked aggressively to introduce protocols and provide a safe work environment,” said Dennis Darby, the manufacturing group’s chief executive, in a statement.

“The announcement today by Premier Ford that the sector could continue to operate through the pandemic while maintaining these standards is welcomed by manufacturers across the province.”

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Still, the rest of the supply chain may start to feel the effects of struggles for small retailers, as independent shops aren’t ordering stock for fear there will be no customers, said Albert Stortchak, chair of the Broadview Danforth BIA in Toronto.

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With inventory from Christmas still languishing on shelves and no end in sight, Stortchak said it can be tough for local shops to watch big box retailers “eat their dinner.”

“We are willing to step up and be responsible and do our part,” said Stortchak.

“We’re not against big box (stores) … it’s just the inconsistency between big business and small business.”