Rules ‘incentivize’ bad behaviour
sell in person.
There has also been widespread confusion among smallbusiness owners about which businesses are considered essential. HBC itself kept one downtown Toronto location open at the beginning of the second lockdown, which began Nov. 23, because of a small food shop on its premises, only to be told it had to shut its doors.
The Canadian retail giant has had its share of struggles during the pandemic, including a public legal battle with many of its landlords over unpaid rent. The retailer’s statement Thursday says the current measures in Toronto and Peel don’t “support our shared public health objectives” and are “causing undue stress and hardships to thousands of retail employees and businesses across the region.”
Court documents filed by the retailer note that its offerings overlap with the non-essential goods — clothing, cosmetics, linens, small appliances — offered by other large stores like Walmart, Canadian Tire and Costco.
The documents claim that retail is a “negligible source” of COVID-19 spread. They point to weekly data released by the provincial government as proof. In the most recent epidemiological summary, for the week Nov. 22 to 28, there were seven COVID-19 outbreaks linked to retail settings, compared to 30 in long-term-care homes, 35 in education including child care, six in bars and restaurants and two in recreational fitness.
However, Timothy Sly, professor emeritus at Ryerson University’s School of Occupational and Public Health, said the data provided by contact tracing doesn’t tell the whole story when cases are this high.
“I think at the moment, there
are more that are not traced to a particular origin or source, than there are that are traced,” he said.
The documents also allege that previous versions of the province’s colour-coded framework would have let department stores remain open even during a lockdown if they had an external entrance, even if they didn’t sell groceries. They allege that at 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 22, the night before the latest lockdown began in Toronto and Peel, the government updated the framework “without notice or discussion” to exclude large retailers unless they sold groceries.
“Ontario offered no explanation or justification for this about-face, which excluded HBC while allowing other bigbox retailers like Walmart, Costco and Canadian Tire to remain open and to sell all of their non-essential goods,” the court documents read.
Nicko Vavassis, a spokesperson for Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey, said the office can’t comment on matters before the courts.
The documents call the cur
rent regulations “incoherent and devoid of logic and consistency” and allege that they “incentivize irresponsible behaviour” because customers can buy non-essential items at big retailers that can remain open. They cite a recent Yale study that found closing low-risk retail businesses can worsen the pandemic’s spread.
A spokesperson for the Retail Council of Canada said in an emailed statement that while they don’t comment on individual business operations, they feel the frustration of businesses across Toronto and Peel.
“The model of closing stores will not lead to better health outcomes, and in fact we are seeing that it is potentially exacerbating the problem as shoppers are pushed into fewer, increasingly crowded retail environments,” they said.
Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said the organization agrees Ontario has implemented “bizarre rules” for retailers compared to other provinces. If the government does decide to change the current restrictions, he hopes it
will take an approach that puts small businesses first.
“Our preferred outcome is different (than HBC), but the basic principle behind the lawsuit, we support,” he said.
Kelly pointed to other provinces such as Alberta as examples of ways lockdowns can let small retailers remain open at limited capacity. As well, in Manitoba the lockdown is more restrictive, but also prevents big-box stores from selling nonessential goods, as the mayor of Mississauga has moved to implement.
Kelly also confirmed that the Ontario government changed the colour-coded restrictions at the last minute to exclude large retailers without groceries, which he said would have been even more unfair to small businesses.
“I think the government … realized that that was going to create even more confusion and anger on the part of independent businesses,” he said. However, Kelly said the lastminute change is yet another example of what he calls “abysmal” handling of pandemic restrictions.