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Nova Scotia business says province is freezing them out with COVID-19 rules

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The general manager of a furniture and appliance store in Nova Scotia is wondering why his business wasn’t deemed essential, even though most of its business comes from the sale of essential products.

Mike Michaud runs Berry’s Furniture, which first opened a store in Truro more than 60 years ago. A second location in Elmsdale opened in 2017.

“Our name is Berry’s Furniture, but 65 per cent of our sales are based on appliances between both locations,” said Michaud.

The demand for appliances has gone up significantly during COVID-19, with more people moving to the province and looking to do more home renovations under lockdown.

While appliances are listed on the province’s website as an essential product, furniture is not. Under current restrictions, all stores that don’t sell primarily essential goods need to close and only provide services through delivery and pickup.

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On Friday, Berry’s Furniture received a visit from Occupational Health and Safety and Michaud was told the business was not in compliance with COVID-19 regulations, even though it was operating below the 25 per cent capacity limit set by the province for essential businesses.

With that, the business had to move to delivery-only, which isn’t ideal for his customers.

“Customers want to see (the appliance), they want to feel it, they want to touch it, they want to look at it. They’re not given that option now,” said Michaud.

Berry’s does business with local contractors and landlords, and it even provided refrigerators to local pharmacies to store COVID-19 vaccines, but it was still deemed non-essential.

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The Truro location boasts a 40,000-square-foot showroom, while the one in Elmsdale has a 20,000-square-foot showroom, so he said the business can easily maintain social distancing.

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Michaud said he’s willing to make changes, such as roping off the furniture section, but he doesn’t have that option.

“We’re not given the opportunity. We are forced to say to the customer, ‘If you want to look at it and touch it, you have to get in your car and drive down to Dartmouth Crossing for your closest place right now to look at those appliances,’” he said.

Keeping people in the community

Michaud said he’s spoken with a number of other independent furniture and appliance retailers who are in the same boat. He’s concerned that people will have to travel outside of their communities to visit a big-box store in the Halifax area, which has by far the highest concentration of COVID-19 cases in the province.

Berry’s Furniture has 21 staff members between both locations, and so far, Michaud has had to lay off six of them.

“Any business owner will tell you, it’s hard to let people go,” he said. “I know we can keep them safe, and I know that they’re safer working for me than someone that’s working a door at Costco right now.”

While the province is offering a Small Business Impact Grant, which provides eligible businesses with a one-time grant up to $5,000, that amount “won’t touch the loss we will feel,” said Michaud.

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Michaud raised his concerns with Fred Jeffers, the executive director of Occupational Health and Safety division with the Department of Labour and Advanced Education. In an email exchange provided to Global News, Jeffers said only home appliance stores whose primary product line is appliances are allowed to operate at 25 per cent capacity.

“It is our position that for the time being, in the case of your store, we consider your primary product line to be furnishings, not appliances,” Jeffers said in an email to Michaud.

His position didn’t change after the business provided him with financial statements showing more than half of their sales have come from appliances since 2019.

“I certainly appreciate your concerns and over the next few weeks, I hope you can find opportunities to continue to serve your customers without being open to the public while we all work together to try to get this current situation under control for the safety of our province,” Jeffers wrote.

65 per cent of Berry’s Furniture sales are from appliances, said Michaud. Google Street View

In an emailed statement, the Department of Health and Wellness said the intent of the restrictions is to keep people home and people should only be shopping for essential goods and services like food, gas and medications.

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“Retail stores that sell essential items can remain open to in-person sales at 25% capacity, but the essential goods must be their primary product line,” the statement said. “Sales volume is not part of the determination-– it’s about the primary product provided for in-person sales and shopping.”

Michaud said he understands the pain COVID-19 has caused and takes COVID-19 protocols seriously, but shuttering businesses like his and sending customers out of their communities to buy appliances isn’t the answer.

“I have lost a family member back in Maine to COVID, I would never want any individual to go through it, and my heart goes out to everyone that’s lost somebody to COVID,” he said.

“I want my staff to be safe, I want my customers to be safe, I want my community to be safe.”

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