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Sean Liburd, the owner of Knowledge Bookstore in Brampton. Considered non essential, bookstores like the Knowledge Bookstore will finally be able to have customers in store when Stage 1 reopening begins in Ontario.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

As of Friday morning, for the first time since April 8, Knowledge Bookstore will be open – but its door will still be locked.

It’s the best way co-owner Sean Liburd can think of to manage the store’s 15-per-cent capacity limits under the first step of Ontario’s reopening plan. In normal times, the Afrocentric bookstore in Brampton, Ont., has three full-time employees, but after months of repeated lockdowns and capacity limitations, Mr. Liburd and his wife, Carolette, are running things on their own. A sign on the door asks customers to knock or phone to be let in.

“It’s strange,” Mr. Liburd said. He is used to customers wandering in freely, lingering over the stacks, sinking into a couch to read, taking their time. If a lineup forms, he worries about having to rush them. “There are people who come here when they’re feeling stressed, they have things on their mind, they come in and we talk. Time has never really been any kind of consideration.”

Many non-essential retailers in Ontario will begin reopening to in-store customers on Friday after the latest government-imposed shutdown. But much uncertainty remains for businesses this summer, with stores facing tight capacity restrictions for now, and other locations such as malls and cinemas remaining closed.

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Ontario’s staged reopening was supposed to begin next Monday, but was moved up by three days as the province exceeded its goal for administering first doses of COVID-19 vaccines. The first step will allow for outdoor dining on restaurant patios, shopping in non-essential retail stores and outdoor gatherings of 10 people or fewer.

The Retail Council of Canada objects to Ontario’s timeline, arguing the provincial government should impose the same rules for all retailers – including those without street-facing entrances in shopping malls, which for now remain closed. The RCC is also advocating for a capacity limit higher than 15 per cent. The industry group cites data from Statistics Canada showing 85,500 retail jobs have been lost in Ontario since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 32,000 of them last month, during the latest lockdown.

In other provinces where stores are allowed to open, many Harry Rosen locations are operating at 25-per-cent capacity, said Larry Rosen, chairman and chief executive officer of the menswear chain.

“Twenty-five per cent gives us half a chance. It’s still respectful of the necessities of safety,” Mr. Rosen said. “At 15 per cent, it’s very difficult to conduct business in a meaningful way.”

For example, Harry Rosen’s flagship store on Bloor Street in Toronto has five floors, and requires 25 to 30 employees at a minimum to run. With its square footage, the capacity limits allow for roughly 70 people total in the store at any given time, including staff. The Ontario locations have brought back only roughly half of their employees, Mr. Rosen said.

The Toronto-based chain has been affected by the shift to working from home and by the cancellation of formal-wear events such as weddings. While its high-end sportswear business has been strong and e-commerce has surged, Mr. Rosen said most of his customers prefer to shop in stores. Harry Rosen is further restricted by Ontario’s continuing mall shutdowns; nine of its 17 stores in Canada are in Ontario, but only three can reopen on Friday. The rest are in shopping malls and do not have street-facing entrances.

“We’re going to survive this, but it hasn’t been easy,” he said. “It has been very, very, very destructive to us.”

Some in the industry argue the province should be casting its net more widely: Almost 42 per cent of Cineplex Inc.’s 162 movie theatres are in Ontario, but cinemas will not be open until Phase 3.

“It doesn’t make any sense. We are no different than any retailer,” CEO Ellis Jacob said. “It’s going to mean a significant impact.”

Because there is a 21-day gap forecast between phases, theatres may remain closed until late July, taking a big bite out of the summer blockbuster season.

“June is important, and July is very important to us, as far as the movie slate goes,” Mr. Jacob said. “It’s really important that we get open.”

Shoppers’ expectations are also changing. At Staples Canada, a Canada-wide shift in store layouts and inventory has been accelerated in Ontario stores during the shutdown. Stores now have a dedicated section for cleaning products, and the company has been ordering more items related to working from home.

“We’ve reset our inventory to be relevant for a postpandemic consumer,” Staples Canada CEO David Boone said. Because many of the retailer’s clients are small businesses, he has seen the effect on them as well, particularly for those in Ontario that were closed from late November through the holiday season.

“It was a major step backwards,” Mr. Boone said. “... We’re optimistic, if we can get the opening going, that these businesses can come back.”

But shopping still will not look like it once did at Girl on the Wing in Hamilton, Ont., which sells vintage and new clothing, accessories and gifts. Since the beginning of the pandemic, whenever she has been permitted to reopen, owner Whitney McMeekin has opted for appointment-only visits. At 15-per-cent capacity, her small shop only accommodates a couple of shoppers at a time. She does not want people stuck in a lineup outside, or feeling rushed in the change room when trying to find the right fit.

“It’s a convenience factor, that when people book a time they’re guaranteed that time. They don’t have to wait ... or worry about how close they are to a person from a different household,” Ms. McMeekin said. Bookings also mean that if the store ever needed to do contact tracing, they have the information. Customers have embraced the system so far.

“It’s a bit more relaxed. A lot of them haven’t been in these spaces for so long,” she said. “It’s a way to bring them back to the experience of shopping.”

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