New COVID-19 restrictions 'devastating' for mainstreet retailers, restaurants, biz advocates say

Michelle Groulx
Michelle Groulx is the new executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas. File photo

Feb. 2 might still be a month away, but Michelle Groulx felt a lot like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day in the wake of the province’s decision Monday to impose new restrictions on businesses as COVID-19 case counts soar to record highs.

Like weatherman Phil Connors – who was doomed to repeat the same day over and over again in the 1993 film starring Murray – the executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas was experiencing an unwanted sense of deja vu after the Ontario government banned indoor dining, shuttered gyms and slapped a host of other limits on retailers in a bid to rein in the omicron variant that’s threatening to overwhelm the province’s health-care system.

“A year ago … I was talking about the exact same things I’m talking about today – only worse now,” said Groulx, echoing the frustration felt by many of her organization’s 6,400-plus members, which include retailers, restaurants and other mainstreet businesses.

The new restrictions – which also include cutting indoor gatherings to a maximum of five people and closing indoor concert venues, theatres, casinos and cinemas – will take effect as of 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday and will remain in place for at least 21 days, the province announced Monday.

In unveiling the measures Monday morning, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he had no choice but to reinstate Stage 2-style measures similar to those imposed last spring in a bid to stem omicron’s rampant spread. 

'Tsunami' of cases expected

“If we don't do everything possible to get this variant under control, the results could be catastrophic,” he said, explaining that a “tsunami” of expected cases is expected to sideline as many as 30 per cent of Ontario workers over the next few weeks. “It is a risk I cannot take.”

But Groulx and other local business leaders said they felt the government was once again unfairly targeting smaller enterprises while allowing big-box department stores and malls to remain open, albeit at reduced capacity.

“It’s the inconsistency and the (province’s) failure to act in a proactive fashion that I think I, and I’m sure many other businesspeople, are feeling,” said Dave Longbottom, the owner of Centretown’s Flora Hall brew pub.

“They only know how to react in a crisis mode. There doesn’t seem to be any ability to plan ahead. They throw the small businessperson on to the scrap heap as a concession.”

"There doesn’t seem to be any ability to plan ahead. They throw the small businessperson on to the scrap heap as a concession."

Longbottom pinned some of the blame for the escalating wave of infections on an inadequate supply of rapid tests and a slow rollout of booster shots – tools he said could have helped blunt omicron’s spread had governments been more proactive.

“They’ve failed, and that’s why we’re back where we are again,” he said, noting his pub had just started to approach pre-pandemic sales figures when the province reintroduced capacity limits before Christmas. “They’re just distracting us with these half-measures again.”

Groulx said the repeated shutdowns are taking a mounting toll on business owners who are being forced to rack up debt in order to stay afloat as well as employees who aren’t sure where their next paycheques will come from.

“You’re going to have thousands of staff members facing their third, fourth, fifth layoff in less than two years,” she said. “This is a major mental health crisis that is really not being talked about by (government) officials. It’s nothing short of devastating.”

In a bid to aid businesses hit by the closures, the province also announced it is beefing up its small business rebate program. 

Energy cost rebates

Certain businesses ordered to close will be reimbursed for 100 per cent of property tax and energy costs, it said, while ones required to reduce capacity to 50 per cent will receive a rebate payment for half those expenses. Online applications will open in mid-January, and payments will be retroactive to Dec. 19.

But Groulx said she fears the latest round of closures will be a death blow to many mainstreet stores, restaurants and other enterprises that are “barely hanging in” after nearly two years of COVID-fuelled economic uncertainty. 

She’s calling for governments at all levels to forgive loans handed out earlier in the pandemic and provide grants to help restaurants, gyms and other small businesses weather the latest shutdown.

“I would’ve expected a better government plan if you’re doing something so devastating,” Groulx said. “This is going to be much more difficult to recover from without dramatic, drastic supports being put in place.” 

Here’s a full list of the latest restrictions, which kick in Wednesday and are expected to remain in place until at least Jan. 26:

Gatherings and services:

  • Social gathering will be limited to five people indoors and 10 people outdoors
  • Organized public events will be limited to five people indoors
  • Indoor weddings, funerals and religious services, rites and ceremonies will be limited to 50 per cent room capacity, while outdoor services are limited to the number of people that can maintain two metres of physical distance
  • Indoor meeting and event spaces must be closed with some exceptions, but outdoor spaces can open with restrictions

Schools and child care:

  • All publicly funded and private schools will move to remote learning starting Wednesday until at least Jan. 17
  • Free child care will be provided for school-aged children of health-care and other eligible frontline workers while leaning is remote
  • School buildings can open for emergency child care, instruction for students with special education needs who cannot be accommodated remotely and for staff who cannot deliver quality teaching from home

Hospitals:

  • Hospitals must pause all non-emergent and non-urgent surgeries and procedures in order to preserve critical care and human resource capacity

Restaurants, bars and clubs:

  • Restaurants, bars and other food or drink establishments must close indoor dining rooms
  • Takeout, drive-through, delivery and outdoor dining can continue with restrictions
  • Alcohol sales will be restricted after 10 p.m., as will the consumption of alcohol in businesses or settings after 11 p.m., with exemptions for delivery and takeout, grocery/convenience stores and other liquor stores

Libraries:

  • Public libraries can open to 50 per cent capacity

Sports and recreation:

  • Indoor sport and recreational fitness facilities including gyms must be closed, except for athletes training for the Olympics and Paralympics and select professional and elite amateur sport leagues
  • Outdoor facilities are permitted to operate with restrictions and with spectator occupancy limited to 50 per cent capacity

Retail and other indoor businesses:

  • Retail settings, including shopping malls, are permitted to stay open at 50 per cent capacity
  • Food courts must be closed in shopping malls
  • Physical distancing will be required in lineups in shopping malls and loitering will not be allowed
  • Personal care services can stay open at 50 per cent capacity, with other restrictions in place
  • Saunas, steam rooms and oxygen bars must close
  • All employers are must let employees work remotely unless their job requires them to be on site

Theatres, entertainment venues and other attractions:

  • Indoor concert venues, theatres, cinemas, rehearsals will be closed
  • Recorded performances will be permitted with restrictions
  • Museums, galleries, zoos, science centres, landmarks, historic sites, botanical gardens and similar attractions, amusement parks and waterparks, tour and guide services and fairs, rural exhibitions, and festivals must be closed, but outdoor establishments can open with restrictions
  • Indoor horse racing tracks, car racing tracks and other similar venues must be closed. Outdoor establishments are permitted to open with restrictions and with spectator occupancy limited to 50 per cent capacity
  • Boat tours are permitted with a 50 per cent capacity limit

– With additional reporting from the Canadian Press