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An Indigo store in Toronto on May 19, 2020. In an open letter released Tuesday, a coalition that included Indigo said the closing of retailers deemed non-essential in Ontario’s Peel Region and in Toronto is 'an ineffective policy.'Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

A coalition of nearly 50 retailers, including Canadian Tire, Indigo, Hudson’s Bay and others, is calling on the Ontario government to lift COVID-19 restrictions that have shuttered stores just in time for the crucial holiday shopping season.

In an open letter released on Tuesday, the group said that the closing of retailers deemed non-essential in Ontario’s Peel Region and in Toronto is “an ineffective policy” that puts retail businesses at risk of failure. The letter was addressed to Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the province’s Deputy Premier and Minister of Health, Christine Elliott.

The group is calling for Ontario to implement store capacity limits. Capping shoppers at 25 per cent of the building capacity – similar to measures implemented by other provinces such as Alberta and Nova Scotia – would “put fewer people in more stores, increasing safety for all,” the letter states.

The companies behind the letter argue that the current policy “has funnelled those shoppers and the corresponding health risk into fewer, increasingly crowded stores within Toronto and Peel, as well as adjacent communities.” Over the most recent weekend, malls in communities such as Vaughan and Markham attracted visitors eager to take advantage of Black Friday sales, it says.

The letter also argues that the policy gives undue advantage to big-box retailers and discount stores – which have been allowed to remain open because some of their goods are deemed essential – while smaller independent retailers are closed.

Signatories include the CEOs of Canadian retailers such as Aldo Group, Groupe Dynamite Inc., Leon’s Furniture Ltd. and Roots Corp., as well as Canadian leaders of global retailers such as Ikea, Old Navy, Sephora and Staples. Canadian Tire Corp. president and CEO Greg Hicks also signed the letter, though Canadian Tire stores have been allowed to remain open. (The company’s sporting goods stores such as Sport Chek are affected by closings, however.)

Ontario reported 1,707 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, as well as seven new deaths due to the virus. Toronto and Peel account for the vast majority of new infections, with 727 new cases reported in the province’s largest city on Tuesday, and 373 in Peel, which is just west of Toronto and includes the municipalities of Brampton, Mississauga and the Town of Caledon. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Ontario has reported more than 116,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 3,600 deaths.

This latest communiqué adds to previous calls for provincial governments to allow all retailers to keep their doors open, with limits on the number of shoppers allowed in stores. Industry groups say capacity limits would make things safer at bigger stores, while allowing small retailers a chance to survive the pandemic’s second wave. The groups say this is preferable to mandating closings for some deemed “non-essential,” while big-box stores that sell items such as groceries and hardware can remain open.

In Ontario, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and Peel Regional Council have been advocating for similar rules, and the Retail Council of Canada has also pushed for the same across the country.

“It is much safer, because you’re not forcing people to go to another area of the region, or all go to the same mass merchant or grocery stores or pharmacy chain,” said Diane Brisebois, the Retail Council’s president and chief executive, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail last week.

Ontario put in place the latest lockdown measures on Nov. 23. Stores that remain open have been required to operate at 50 per cent capacity.

“To be clear, moving regions into a lockdown is not a measure this government takes lightly. However, as we have seen around the world, lockdowns are a difficult but necessary step to stop the spread, safeguard the key services we rely on and protect our health system capacity,” Ms. Elliott’s spokesperson Alexandra Hilkene wrote in a statement Tuesday, responding to the letter. The statement emphasized $600-million in planned spending by the province on relief for businesses that have been required to close.

“In partnership with the Chief Medical Officer of Health and our local medical officers of health, we continue to closely monitor the evolving situation to advise if and when public health measures need to be adjusted,” Ms. Hilkene wrote.

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