There is a growing frustration by the small business community in the country on what entrepreneurs are calling an unfair advantage for big box retailers like Costco and Walmart operating during restrictions that have been created to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has been a very vocal proponent of governments levelling the playing field for all businesses during the implementation of a lockdown and public health measures.
Now, the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, the voice of the city’s 84 BIAs, representing over 70,000 businesses, and Toronto City Councillor, Brad Bradford, representing Beaches-East York (Ward 19), have sent a letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford outlining their concerns over this issue.
“As a community we support the increased efforts to tackle the virus, however, we are also concerned about their effectiveness to contain the spread and inconsistent impacts for small, locally-owned businesses,” said the letter.
“Under the latest emergency orders essential retailers — particularly big box stores — are able to sell non-essential items in-store, and after-hours. This puts small businesses at a disadvantage and is a public health concern as it may encourage non-essential travel.
“We are asking you to take urgent action by going one step further in the orders and mandating big box stores and other retailers selling essential goods to close off sections of their stores where non-essential items are displayed. Manitoba has implemented this strategy and has seen cases going down since the order went into effect. We recognize that big box stores need to be kept open to provide essentials goods for folks, especially given the varied geography and access to online shopping across Ontario. But there is also an imperative to be fair with main street businesses who have made incredible sacrifices throughout the pandemic.”
John Kiru, Executive Director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, said the reality is that small businesses are still trying to figure out what the evidence is to shut them down and keep the Costcos and the Walmarts of the world open.
“They’ve got hundreds of people going through there. There’s no real controls. (A recent) blitz on these places shows that they’re not very responsible in meeting their obligations under the lockdown requirements. We’ve been closed for two months. Small business is up against it. We’re losing them left, right, and centre out there and nobody has ever been able to show us that shopping is an issue that has caused some of these (COVID) numbers,” said Kiru.
“The fact that we have to be closed then we suggest that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. And these big shops that are out there, we have no problem with the essential stuff absolutely. But when you can go in there to Walmart and walk out with a 90-inch TV I don’t know how essential that is.
“So if you’re going to be serious about the lockdown, be serious about it. Shut down all non-essentials. These power centres, these power big boxes, are more than capable of pivoting and making an adjustment within their layout. They do seasonal makeovers in those stores overnight. They’d be able to push aside a few aisles, put up some fencing or rails to keep people out of that area. If we can’t open our doors, then we would suggest that since we’ve been closed others should experience it.”
Kiru said the lockdown in Ontario could be easily modified while maintaining all the safety protocols by allowing small businesses, for example, to open under appointment based shopping, with limited capacity and contact tracing.
“We believe we can be responsible and manage our stores in such a way in terms of cleaning, in terms of the amount of people that could come in. We were closed right through Christmas which traditionally is the time of year, and before Christmas as well, when you make hay while the weather is good. That’s when we have a good year and you make up that money to carry you through the rest of the year,” he said.
“Well this year we didn’t have that and here we are. (Recently) it was Blue Monday. But for small business, January and February and part of March are usually blue months because people are getting their bills from Christmas. Business on main street is traditionally tough through January and February. And compound that with the fact that we can’t open only exacerbates the situation.”
Kiru said small businesses are grateful for some of the grants and government financial assistance that exist but unfortunately it’s nowhere near enough to be able to survive.
“We’re seeing not only businesses failing but the mental impact on a number of these business people. Divorces. There definitely are issues that are stemming when people are seeing their livelihoods, their life investments into their businesses, evaporating through no fault of their own,” he said. “Not to say the government is to blame but some of the restrictions that the government’s put into place and shut us down effectively is a part of that concern that many of these people are voicing.”