Ottawa business coalition boss blasts 'unfairness' of new COVID-19 restrictions

Mark Kaluski
Mark Kaluski is the chair of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas. File photo

Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a 28-day state of emergency Tuesday and will invoke stricter public health measures in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19 ​– but a prominent Ottawa business advocate says the new rules unfairly punish mainstreet retailers because they still allow big-box stores to remain open.

Saying the province’s health-care system “is on the brink of collapse,” Ford announced a state-at-home order effective Thursday that will require residents to remain in their residences for all but essential purposes such as buying groceries, going to the pharmacy, accessing health care or exercising.

In addition, the province imposed tighter restrictions on non-essential retail stores, including alcohol retailers, hardware stores and those offering curbside pickup or delivery. 

Those businesses will now be allowed to open no earlier than 7 a.m. and must close no later than 8 p.m. Grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores and gas stations can keep their regular hours.

Other new measures include further restrictions on non-essential construction and reducing limits on outdoor gatherings from 10 people to five.

The new rules come after the province's latest models suggested that without new restrictions, daily COVID-19 deaths could double between now and the end of February.

“Our province is in crisis,” Ford told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “It’s on the brink of being overwhelmed.”

Big-box store crackdown 

But the head of a major Ottawa business group is questioning whether the new restrictions will actually help lower the city’s COVID-19 caseload.

Mark Kaluski, the chair of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas, noted that big-box stores such as Walmart and Costco will remain open under the new rules. 

The province says it plans to launch an “inspection blitz” to make sure the retailers adhere to capacity limits as well as physical distancing and masking protocols. But Kaluski said the government needs to crack down even further on retail giants if it really wants to get the virus under control.  

“We would have liked to have seen the box stores limited to selling essential items only, but it doesn’t seem to be in the cards,” he said. “There is a sense of unfairness.”

Ottawa reported 63 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, down from 127 on Monday and the lowest daily total of the new year. But the city’s seven-day average has soared since Christmas, and there are now 11 patients in intensive care, the most since early May. 

The new provincial restrictions are on top of earlier measures aimed at controlling the virus that were invoked on Dec. 26 and are slated to remain in force until at least Jan. 23. 

Kaluski, whose organization represents more than 6,200 local businesses, also said he’s skeptical that stay-at-home rules and tougher limits on social gatherings will stem the spread of COVID-19 unless there’s stricter enforcement of the new measures.

"People have just flat-out ignored the rules. We’d just like to see more resources and energy spent limiting social gatherings."

“We would’ve liked to have seen something more to address that if the goal is we need to get this under control as quickly as possible,” Kaluski said. 

“People have just flat-out ignored the rules. From the start, they’ve been really going hard at business and implementing strict measures, but the (case) numbers keep going up under the lockdown. We’d just like to see more resources and energy spent limiting social gatherings.”

Noting that Ottawa bylaw officers said they issued nearly 500 verbal warnings last weekend to people who violated physical distancing and masking rules, Kaluski said it’s time officials started hitting scofflaws where it really hurts – in the wallet.

“I don’t think businesses ever got 500 warnings before they started getting tickets,” he said.

A small business owner himself, Kaluski said it’s “frustrating” to see people openly defying public-health protocols. 

“If we all just followed the rules, we wouldn’t have to keep amping up lockdowns,” he said.

Confusing policies

Meanwhile, a major national business organization echoed Kaluski’s concerns. 

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business is also criticizing new provincial lockdown rules, saying they are unfair to small businesses.

CFIB president Dan Kelly said he worries the new policies limiting opening hours risk further crowding at essential retailers like Walmart stores or Amazon warehouses instead. (Walmart Canada said it will comply with government restrictions and continue using a custom app to count capacity, as well as doing temperature checks for associates and other wellness measures.)

“We think that allowing small firms to serve one or three customers at a time would actually take the pressure off of the big-box stores,” said Kelly.

Kelly said the policies announced by Ford's government are confusing for non-essential retailers, which are being told they can stay open with limited hours even as their customers are told that non-essential trips are banned altogether.

“I don't understand why a small bookstore can't hand the book – outdoors – to a customer after eight. But you can line up at Costco and buy it,” Kelly said.

“If you send a product to a third-party delivery (service), like through the mail or through a courier, the ... restriction won't exist. But if you, as a business owner, happen to deliver it on your way home to your customer nearby, that's prohibited. And we're struggling to figure out on what planet that helps stop the spread of COVID.”

Kelly says his group, which represents 42,000 Ontario businesses, isn't calling for stores to be wide open, but would like to see restrictions closer to those enacted by British Columbia.

“Ford has toasted his relationship with small business owners,” said Kelly. “No province in Canada has locked down small retailers while allowing box stores to remain open. Not a single one. All of them have medical offices of health advisers at the provincial and municipal level.”

Yet other business groups had praise for Ontario's new policies.

The Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters group applauded a policy it said would improve workplace safety by allowing more access to COVID-19 testing.

Construction groups applaud changes

“The manufacturing sector has worked aggressively to introduce protocols and provide a safe work environment,” said Dennis Darby, the manufacturing group's chief executive, in a statement.

“The announcement today by Premier Ford that the sector could continue to operate through the pandemic while maintaining these standards is welcomed by manufacturers across the province.”

Two construction industry groups said the new restrictions on its industry, which are similar to those seen last April, are necessary.

“While the new restrictions will slow the delivery of new housing for some projects, case levels have gotten to the point that all sectors and residents must be part of the solution,” said a joint statement from the Building Industry and Land Development Association and the Ontario Home Builders' Association.

“The government of Ontario continues to show confidence in the construction industry to operate in a safe environment ... We will continue to work with members to remind them of the immense responsibility that comes with Essential Workplace designation under the Emergency Orders.” 

– With additional reporting from the Canadian Press