Curbside pickup during a pandemic questioned and defended

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If people are supposed to stay home, why are non-essential small businesses allowed to stay open for curbside pickup under the new pandemic emergency order, some businesspeople themselves are wondering.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced Tuesday a new emergency order effective Thursday would let essential businesses remain open as they have been – but also permit non-essential businesses to stay open by using curbside pickup or delivery.

Wednesday he addressed why, saying it’s easy to get essential items online or in big box stores in downtown Toronto “but that is not the case in the vast majority of Ontario; there is no same-day delivery,” he said at his daily media briefing.

He reiterated people must work from home if possible and stay home unless they go out for an essential purpose, such as for food, work, a doctor’s appointment or exercise. But he also encouraged people to buy from their local small businesses rather than from big-box stores.

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He said people should “use their best judgment” whether a trip out of the house is essential. “If you’re not sure if a trip is absolutely essential, it probably isn’t.”

The order will be in effect until at least Thursday, Feb. 11.

Downtown Owen Sound merchant Dave Parsons has the curbside pickup routine down pat, including sanitary measures. But he wondered at the logic of allowing curbside pickup amid a public health emergency shutdown intended to limit virus spread.

“The first thing I’d like to say is it’s pretty confusing to think that in a sense we’ve been told that curbside service is OK and then everyone is being told to stay home, except for essential services,” the Parsons Foto Source owner said.

“We shouldn’t be encouraging people to come by for curbside service when we’re not essential,” said Parsons, who also chairs the Owen Sound Downtown Improvement Area board of directors.

At his store, people order online or by phone and pay in advance by credit card or e-transfer. He phones them when the item is available for pickup, asks customers to arrive masked and to phone or knock on the shop door, then step back.

He’ll either place the item on a chair by the entranceway or present it in a plastic bag on the end of a pole or carry it out to the trunk of the customer’s car. At times he’s delivered products to customers.

No one’s been in his store since Dec. 26, the first day of the last provincial lockdown. And despite a new provincial emergency order, he expects to have better January sales this year than last. People are buying cameras, lenses, telescopes and binoculars, he said.

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He also noted his contact at one of his camera suppliers was uncertain if it could remain open under the expanded lockdown because the rules were confusing.

Steve Harris, the president of the Saugeen Shores Chamber of Commerce, said the top priority during the pandemic is keeping people from getting sick, protecting hospital capacity for all who are sick — COVID-19 or otherwise — and protecting frontline workers.

His Italian restaurant in Port Elgin is reduced to take-out service and his property management and investment business also faces limitations.

He wonders if blanket lockdowns overly punish businesses in areas where there’s a lot less virus present. Businesses have learned a lot about how to operate amid COVID-19, he said. For example, his restaurant has a larger capacity which could accommodate some customers safely, while maybe smaller cafés’ capacity limits couldn’t, he said. And how can dollar stores or even big box stores that sell food but primarily sell other items let customers inside while small retailers can’t?

He said people don’t want to buy everything online; sometimes people need to try on clothing, for example.

He also worries as a result of COVID-19 there may be fewer businesses and those remaining may have learned to operate with fewer employees. Both losses will take a toll on the economy, he said.

New provincial rules say retailers may open no more than between 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., with limited exceptions. Supermarkets, convenience stores, indoor farmers’ markets and other stores that primarily sell food may remain open, at 50 per cent capacity. Pharmacies may remain open too, at 50 per cent capacity.

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Discount and big-box stores that sell groceries will be limited to 25 per cent in-store capacity, with unchanged operating hours.

Stores selling alcohol will be limited to operating between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. with 25 per cent in-store capacity.

Provincial two-metre distancing and face-covering requirements remain.

The list of businesses allowed to remain open also includes banks, vehicle repair shops (by appointment only), postal and courier services, manufacturers and others. See covid-19.ontario.ca/zones-and-restrictions online for fuller details. That document was released Wednesday night by the province and makes the rules clearer.

Ford also said Wednesday that provincial and federal programs are there to support businesses. He noted an online portal will open Friday for small businesses to apply for $10,000 to $20,000 under the Ontario Small Business Support Grant. It’s for businesses that had to close or significantly restrict services due to the province-wide shutdown, that employ fewer than 100 people and saw a minimum 20 per cent decline in revenue in April 2020 compared to April 2019.

Details are online at news.ontario.ca/en/backgrounder/59920/ontario-continues-to-support-employers-and-workers-during-covid-19.