Earlier this week, Premier Doug Ford announced a new state of emergency for the province of Ontario in light of escalating COVID-19 infections that threaten to overrun the province’s medical resources. As part of the emergency measures, the province announced a new lockdown period across all of Ontario, referring to the matter as a ‘stay at home’ order. Under the new restrictions, non-essential retail stores are not permitted to open except for curbside pickup and must close by 8 pm. In addition, stores that sell essential goods such as groceries in addition to non-essential items (for example, Walmart and Costco) are permitted to remain open for in-person shopping but must close by 8 pm. Essential businesses, such as grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations are permitted to operate as normal, although they must continue to place limits on the number of people inside at one time.
The new measures have come under fire from many sides, including business owners, customers and retail advocates. One argument is that the measures unfairly target small businesses, while ‘big box stores’ like Walmart can carry on business despite a good portion of their product falling into the ‘non-essential’ category, such as electronics and beauty supply items. We previously discussed these criticisms in a previous blog about the Hudson’s Bay Company bringing a claim against the provincial government in opposition to the measures.
Mixed Messaging Causes Confusion for Retailers and Customers
One of the most common critiques of the lockdown measures is the mixed messages many feel the restrictions convey. On the one hand, residents have been asked to remain in their homes unless they have an essential trip. The government has deemed certain activities essential, such as grocery shopping, exercise and medical appointments. However, non-essential retail stores are permitted to operate curbside pickup, meaning it’s feasible a person could leave their home to go pick up decorative items or a new video game system.
In addition, some have said the rules have been applied haphazardly. For example, government-run LCBO and Beer stores remain open for in-person shopping, yet privately-owned cannabis retail stores are only permitted to offer curbside pickup or delivery. Further, these curbside pickup transactions are limited to items purchased by the customer ahead of time online, limiting spontaneous shopping transactions.
Measures not Only Harm Businesses, But Place Residents at Risk: Critics
One major critic of the new measures is the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB), which sees the measures as unfairly punishing small businesses in favour of large corporations. CFIB’s president, Dan Kelly, said that the messaging about what is essential and what isn’t has created confusion among both retailers and their customers. Further, the organization claims the restrictions might actually do more harm than good from a health perspective.
By limiting the number of retailers consumers can visit and the opening hours, this means that there will be higher concentrations of people at fewer locations, increasing the risk of close contact. The organization’s belief is that allowing small businesses to continue to serve customers in person, would reduce pressure on big box stores, while also protecting small business owners during this extended period of financial hardship. The CFIB said it would like to see restrictions closer to what the province of British Columbia has enacted, where small retailers are permitted to open, so long as they observe the following protocols:
- Establish strict capacity limitations based on providing 5 square metres of unencumbered space per person
- Post occupancy limits where they are clearly visible
- Post directional signs to prevent people from passing each other in close quarters, where possible
- Require face coverings at all times
Notably, the measures implemented by the government have received praise from other industries, which are allowed to continue operations with health protocols in place, such as manufacturing and construction.
Our business lawyers can advise on how best to protect your business and maintain staffing through this period of uncertainty. Contact GLG LLP in downtown Toronto for efficient and skilled advice on the management of your business. Call the firm at 416-272-7557 or contact them online to schedule a confidential consultation.