Main street businesses urge province to ease lockdown restrictions

Small businesses in Toronto are staging a pressure campaign on the city and province to lighten the current lockdown restrictions.

The Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA), which oversees the 84 BIAs across Toronto, is organizing the campaign for what they call a “modified lockdown.”

Essentially, such a lockdown would allow small businesses to host by-appointment in-store shopping, allowing about two customers in the store at a time. Currently, only curbside pickup is allowed.

On Dec. 11, businesses across the city protested the current lockdown restrictions on the street. They held up cardboard signs with slogans such as “#thinkoutsidethebigbox,” “buy local or bye local,” as well as ones that detailed their specific situations, such as how many employees they have that are currently out of work.

Danforth BIA Executive Director Susan Puff, who is working closely with TABIA on the lockdown initiative, said that stores across the city have unanimously asked for a modified lockdown.

Part of the reason behind the movement is the current disparity between big box stores and small stores in this second lockdown.

Puff said that big stores, such as Walmart, are not restricted to only selling essential items as the lockdown suggests, but are also selling non-essential items.

Smaller stores, however, are currently not allowed to sell any items in-store, a discrepancy she noted even Premier Doug Ford recognizes.

“Big box stores are currently swamped,” Danforth BIA Executive Director Pusan Puff said. “What we’re asking for is a more even fair playing field.”

Puff said by-appointment in-store shopping could allow small retailers to offer a better shopping experience during the busy holiday season, while also keeping up with sanitization to ensure the coronavirus doesn’t spread further.

In addition to the street protest, Puff said the BIAs also put forth the modified lockdown suggestion to both John Tory and Prabmeet Sarkaria, the provincial minister for small business and red tape reduction.

She said both of them seemed open to the idea and would think about it. The BIAs’ campaign plans to follow up with them in the near future.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Ontario Minister of Health Christine Elliot said that moving regions into lockdown is “not a measure this government takes lightly” but is done to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

“In partnership with the chief medical officer of health and our local medical officers of health, we continue to closely monitor the evolving situation to advise if and when public health measures need to be adjusted,” the statement read. 

The province has committed $600 million to help businesses that have had to close or restrict services during the lockdown.

But it may not be enough to save many businesses that are currently sinking.

December is the busiest time of the year for many of them, Puff said, and now January and February are looking “very grim.”

Meg Marshall, community manager for the Bloorcourt, Ossington and Bloordale BIAs, said businesses have lost out on a huge amount of foot traffic this season due to the lockdown and are having to consider whether they should close now or not.

“Some businesses have to make that executive decision,” she said. “It’s not pretty.”

Adding to their troubles is the uncertainty of the future, such as not knowing whether the lockdown might be extended or not. 

It is currently set to end on December 21, but both Puff and Marshall predict that it may continue into the new year given that COVID-19 cases are still on the rise.

Marshall said the BIAs are asking the city and province to provide early warning of whether the lockdown may be extended to help businesses plan and make “intelligent decisions.”

“We want answers, transparency and equality,” Marshall said. “If we’re all in this together, it doesn’t feel like it.”

Article exclusive to TRNTO