Curbside pick-up sign at Pepperwood Design in Jackson’s Point

By: Mike Anderson

Non-essential retailers will be allowed to reopen on February 22, after the provincial stay-at-home order lifts and York Region is allowed to move back to either the grey “lockdown” or red “control” stage.

However, any change remains conditional on COVID-19 case counts and the spread of variants.

“This is not a reopening or a return to normal, it’s an acknowledgment that we are making steady progress,” Christine Elliott, Ontario’s Minister of Health, said.

“We are taking a cautious approach to returning to the framework. If a region experiences a rapid acceleration in Covid transmissions, or if the health care system becomes overwhelmed, a new emergency brake can be implemented.”

The provincial announcement, delivered at a press conference on February 8, occurred after thousands of letters were sent to Premier Doug Ford’s office, urging him to reopen businesses.

“For those business owners who are struggling, I want you to know we listened,” Premier Doug Ford said.

“We’ve been working day and night to find every possible way to safely allow more businesses to reopen. And now we are taking decisive action.”

While non-essential retailers will be allowed to reopen, they face strict restrictions, including a 25 per cent capacity limit.

They will also need to have a system in place for patron screening.

However, the province is not allowing inside-dining in restaurants.

And bars and gyms will remain shuttered for now.

Still, it’s good news for small retailers who have struggled through a second province-wide lockdown, which came into effect on December 26, and the stay-at-home order added four weeks ago.

“I’m definitely looking forward to reopening,” said Alicia Dubrawski, owner of Pepperwood Design, a boutique furniture and gift store in Jackson’s Point.

“It’s really horrible sitting in an empty store waiting for people to come and hopefully pick up stuff. I’d much rather have the store open. We’re not going to be able to have too many people in the store, but it’s certainly better than zero.”

According to Ms. Dubrawski, the lockdowns have severely impacted her business, with sales dropping by 40 per cent in 2020.

While she tried to “pivot” by establishing an online store, she admits her sales were limited.

“It’s definitely kept us alive. But the only thing we sell online is paint. Because most of the other stuff that we sell, like furniture, is tactile. We need walk-in traffic. And we haven’t had that since before Christmas.”

Ms. Dubrawski also feels that small retailers, like herself, have been unfairly penalized.

“It’s unfair that you can go to Costco or Walmart, where there’s lots of people, that’s apparently safe, but it’s not safe coming into a store where we might have three people in the store. It’s just kind of ridiculous.”

Indeed, the province’s move to reopen the economy may have come just in time, as a recent survey by the Georgina Chamber of Commerce found that more than 40 per cent of its members had seen their businesses shrink, with more than 30 per cent reporting they had laid off staff during the lockdowns.

“The Georgina Chamber of Commerce is anxiously awaiting health indicators and transmission rates leading up to February 22 to determine which colour York Region will enter into once the Stay-at-Home order ends in this area. Although the announcement includes revisions to the COVID-19 Framework, it may not be enough for some sectors that may still be restricted from opening,” Jennifer Anderson, Executive Director, Georgina Chamber of Commerce, said.

“Businesses in our community have been hit hard over the last ten months. Our stages and shutdowns have been determined by overall region numbers, not based on what our municipality has been going through. Plus, small businesses have been devastated with lockdowns when larger competitors have been allowed to remain open. It’s time for these businesses to see the light at the end of the tunnel…we are hoping for brighter days beginning on February 22.”

Mayor Margaret Quirk, who, together with other Small Urban GTHA Mayors, has called for the province to level the retail playing field and allow small retailers to reopen, applauds the Premier’s decision but also sounds a note of caution.

“We still are in the midst of an active pandemic, and we need to proceed in a safe manner. As part of the Small Urban GTHA Mayors, I believe Premier Ford has listened to our concerns regarding the need to help our business community,” said Mayor Quirk in a statement to The Post.

“We are starting to see more positive trends occurring, especially if we are able to keep the variant strains in control. We still don’t know what zone within the provincial Framework York Region might be placed as of February 22, as that will depend on our overall COVID-19 situation. Whatever is announced by the province, we still need to be supporting our local businesses – buy online, order take out – we still need to be there for them.

We all share the common goal of supporting our business communities while ensuring our residents remain safe. We all must adhere to the advice of public health officials to accomplish this.”

Steve Jacobson, Chair of the Jackson’s Point BIA, agrees.

“It has been tough for small businesses. They’re suffering big time. I know the community is trying to rally. But let’s be honest, some businesses have done a good job of finding ways around it and making it work, and some haven’t,” Mr. Jacobson said.

“Reopening will only work if the people do what they are supposed to do. Pay attention to the store’s capacity, social distance and wear masks. And don’t get upset when you have to wait five minutes because there’s already three people in the store. Then we should be good.”

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