Today marks three weeks since the lockdown in Toronto and Peel Region began, which saw small businesses being forced to close while big box stores stayed open. These three weeks haven't come without controversy, from Adam Skelly opening his restaurant, anti lockdown protestors being arrested for protesting, and Hudson’s Bay trying a loophole to keep their Queen Street flagship open.
With talks about extending the lockdowns as well as expanding them into other Ontario regions, like York and Windsor, we wanted to know how small businesses feel about this. The Post Millennial reached out to Dan Kelly, the president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses. Kelly has been a strong advocate for a balanced approach to fighting COVID-19, and has been spending the last few weeks calling out the injustices of Ontario’s lockdown policy.
Kelly says Toronto and Peel businesses tell him that the lockdowns have been an absolute disaster. Many of these small businesses were still struggling as a result of the first lockdown, and this second lockdown has just made everything worse. “These businesses were hanging on by a thread before the lockdown started, and now it appears that the government has cut the thread ”
Some who support the lockdown say that small businesses won't be too affected due to government assistance programs, however, Kelly says those programs aren't enough for many small businesses to stay afloat. “It’s not even close, the provincial programs have been helpful but way too small to be able to cover the cost of the damage inflicted by those COVID measures”. He added that the federal government has done more to help the businesses than the Ontario government.
The lockdowns have brought frustration among business owners, who feel like they're being unfairly targeted. Some business owners have even taken to social media to share their frustrations, many of them going viral. “It has moved from disappointment, frustration, and sadness to anger on the part of the small businesses in Ontario’s grey zones,” says Kelly.
He adds that part of the frustration is because while small businesses are forced to close, big box stores like Walmart and Costco selling some of the same items, can remain open. “They see how incredibly unfair Ontario’s rules are, no other jurisdiction in the country has this bizarre retail rule that shuts down small retailers while allowing big box stores to sell the same goods”
Other provinces, many of whom have higher per capita case counts than Ontario, have put in place restrictions that allow small businesses to stay open. Kelly thinks that allowing small businesses to stay open will have better outcomes than forcing everyone into big box stores. “Common sense would suggest, that if you want to create room for physical distancing, you wouldn't close down thousands of businesses where people might encounter one or two other people, and then push those people into a small handful of large retailers.”
Kelly’s Canadian Federation of Independent Business came up with an alternative solution for Ontario, and started a petition asking the Ontario government to implement it. CFIB's "Small Business First" Retail Strategy would have non-essential retailers in grey zones open for in-store sales, but with very limited capacity for customers and public-facing staff. Limit customers to three per store for a fixed time for personalized shopping, limit the store to three public-facing staff to help customers shop as efficiently as possible from a safe distance, and encourage pre-booking appointments, to avoid long lines outside the store. It would also require businesses to sign the “POST Promise” before opening in-store operations, and Encourage customers to shop by curbside pickup or delivery as preferred means.
Polling has found that Kelly’s proposal is much more popular than the current lockdown, with 93% of Ontarians saying it should be implemented. Kelly adds that he thinks the government shut down small businesses for optic and political reasons, and that they even admitted that they had no proof COVID-19 was being transmitted in small businesses. “There's no question that this is for optics, the government is even acknowledging that there is no evidence to suggest that small retailers should be shut down, but they're doing it to send a message to the public to stay home.”
It was also revealed that Walmart hired prominent conservative staffers Melissa Lantsman and David Tarrant to lobby the Ford government before the imposing of the lockdown. Kelly says that it is normal for companies to lobby the government, and it is the premier’s job to listen and take calls, however, he finds it unfortunate that he is listening to the CEOs of big multinational corporations and not small business owners. “My complaint is not that he's listened to Walmart and Costco lobbyists, is that he's not listening to people who run small businesses. I think he needs to do more listening, and hear the common-sense solutions from different industries”.
There is a chance that Ontario will follow Manitoba by extending the lockdowns into January, however, if that does not happen, Kelly thinks that the damage has already been done. “I think there is a very strong chance that the lockdown will continue, but the damage will have already been done. Business owners will have missed the holiday season, the most critical time of the year.” He added that opening things up a few days before Christmas would help, but it would not make a big difference in the losses the businesses occurred during the lockdown.
The CFIB is continuing to lobby the Ontario government to try and make them adopt fairer restrictions. The Hudson's Bay Company has also filed a lawsuit, asking a judge to review Ontario’s grey zone lockdown policies. Dan Kelly says that while people in Toronto and Peel cannot shop in a small business, they can still support them. “Many small firms have created e-commerce sites, but even those that have not, I urge consumers to give the business a call, as many have created new ways to be able to serve customers through curbside pickup, delivery, they might do a video chat. Businesses are doing everything they can to find ways to continue to serve their customers”
The CFIB’s petition can be signed HERE. York and Windsor will join Toronto and Peel in a lockdown starting Monday.