East Toronto small business owners frustrated by ‘different rules’ for big box stores during lockdown

Customers on the patio of the Captain Jack tavern on Wheeler Avenue in the Beach on the evening of Nov. 20. The city went into a COVID-19 lockdown on Nov. 23, which meant bar and restaurant outdoor patios had to be closed. Photo by Alan Shackleton.

By ALI RAZA, Local Journalism  Initiative Reporter

Local businesses are frustrated and exhausted as they weather the storm in Toronto’s second lockdown since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March.

The province announced Nov. 20 that Toronto and Peel were going into its Lockdown/Grey level of its pandemic response framework as of Nov. 23. The regions had seen continuous spikes of cases of COVID-19 since the end of summer, and hospitalizations and ICU admittance had drastically increased.

But as the lockdown aims to reduce the spread of the virus, business owners in East Toronto asking why big box stores are still permitted to remain open.

“It’s just another hammer on the head,” Skaut Design owner Inese Korbs said.

Her store on Kingston Road sells home decor, furniture, and other design products.

Korbs doesn’t have the staff to move her inventory online for customers as a lot of her products are vintage pieces.

“It’s another full-time job,” she said.

Instead Korbs relies on “virtual visits” where people can phone in via video conference and she’ll walk them through the store. She said before the lockdown, while there were fewer visitors than normal years, individuals were buying more per visit.

That came to a grinding halt last week.

“The most difficult part is knowing that big box stores are allowed to operate,” Korbs said. “It’s kind of like they have different rules.”

Walmart and Costco are some of the bigger chains permitted to open, while Amazon still remains ever popular for online shopping. It’s difficult to compete with bigger chains as it is, let alone if you can’t even stay open, Korbs said.

Lita Yiu owns and operates the clothing store Set Me Free on Queen Street East.

She expressed the same frustration that Korbs did about big box stores staying open.

“If you really want to control the spread, shut down big box stores,”  Yiu said.

“I’m happy to have one or two customers allowed in the store at a time, we don’t have the same clout as big businesses, we can’t absorb the shock.”

Yiu said she and her staff are uploading their inventory on e-commerce platforms online, but between all the clothing, accessories, and gifts, it’s a lot of work.

“It’s tedious, it’s time consuming, and you don’t make much money. It’s not the same as walk-in.”

However, Yiu and Korbs have been overjoyed by the local community’s support of their businesses.

Before the lockdown, both business owners were receiving many local customers who were eager to support their neighbourhood businesses.

“People came in, they expressed condolences, supported our store,” Korbs said of the weekend before the lockdown began.

“The people in this neighbourhood are very supportive, and they’re going out of their way to help us.”

It’s been the case throughout the pandemic, Yiu said. From the beginning to now, local customers have supported her.

“They’re amazing,” she said.

“They always try to shop local, especially after the first lockdown.”

Like many small businesses across Canada, Yiu and Korbs have taken advantage of the federal government COVID-19 supports for businesses.

It’s helped them with expenses such as rent and wages, but nothing will recover the loss of revenue in December and the anticipated holiday shopping seasons that so many retail businesses rely on.

“The vast majority of small businesses adhere to the restrictions equally if not better than large chains,” Beach Village BIA executive director Anna Sebert said.

“Most of the businesses on Queen Street can make a go of it with one or two people in the store at a time.”

“Just because there are some bad apples, doesn’t mean all businesses should suffer,” she added.

Beaches-East York Councillor Brad Bradford agrees the “rules around some of the closures haven’t always made sense” regarding big box stores, but warns that the virus remains a threat.

“There’s no doubt about it, the lockdown is taking a toll on all of us but we have to push through. It’s the only way out of this,” he said.

“We’re all seeing the news of the businesses staying open in protest and people rallying against the closures. That’s concerning as it puts us all at risk, especially gathering in the way we’ve seen.”

Bradford has received calls from local businesses asking if it is possible to ease up bylaw enforcement to allow some businesses to remain open.

“I can understand the way they’re feeling,” he said. “We’re all tired, we’re hurting, but we have to follow the guidelines.”

Cases have been among the lowest in the city for the Beach area, an achievement Bradford applauded as the community “is looking out for each other.”

He said he’s making efforts to get relief for businesses from the federal and provincial governments.

“What we need to focus on is getting the full weight of financial support possible for local businesses,” he said.

“We also need clearer, fairer and more evenly applied rules if and when closures continue. City council doesn’t get to make these decisions – but we can elevate the voice of the impact they’re having on our communities and main streets.”

Business owners say they understand the severity of the pandemic, and agree with most public health measures, but worry about local businesses in the community – especially restaurants, bars, and cafes.

“I feel horrible for the restaurants,” Korbs said. “If they all survive that would be a miracle, their hands and feet are tied.”

  • Ali Raza is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Beach Metro News. His reporting is funded by the Government of Canada through its Local Journalism Initiative.

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