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People walk past businesses on Spadina Avenue in Chinatown in Toronto on May 13, 2021.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Retailers are calling for the Ontario government to reconsider its reopening plan, which will keep non-essential stores closed likely until mid-June.

Ontario’s plan, unveiled Thursday, sets the stage for gradual lifting of restrictions based on the proportion of the population that has been vaccinated against COVID-19. The first step requires 60 per cent of adults to have at least one dose, and would allow non-essential retailers that have been limited to online and curbside pickup services only to reopen at 15-per-cent capacity. The government estimates this will occur by June 14.

By that time, retailers in Toronto and Peel Region will have been closed for more than 140 days straight, according to the Retail Council of Canada, as the province has imposed restrictions to combat the pandemic’s third wave. And some industry leaders are objecting to further delays.

“It is devastating,” said Heather Reisman, chief executive officer of Indigo Books & Music Inc. , adding that she believes retailers should be able to open at 25-per-cent capacity on June 2, when the province’s stay-at-home order expires. “No business operates on 15 per cent. None. ... We’ve been labelled non-essential, and we are being treated as if we are disposable.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, just 2.4 per cent of Indigo’s retail employees have tested positive, and all of the cases were contracted outside of its stores, Ms. Reisman said. The retailer has not had a case that originated in a store.

By enforcing masking rules and physical distancing, retailers can operate safely, as they have already been doing in other provinces, said Diane Brisebois, president and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada.

“We know that our ask is evidence-based, and we know that the incidents of cases or transmission in a retail environment are so low that they’re nearly nil,” she said. While a delay of a few weeks may seem small, she added, every day is critical because particularly small retailers have reached “the bottom of the well” when it comes to credit or loans to keep themselves afloat.

“They’re just at wits’ end,” she said.

Ontario’s independent COVID-19 Science Advisory Table released new modelling on Thursday, which showed that a delay in reopening until mid-June would mean case counts would decline much more steeply.

Retailers have been able to offset some of the losses from in-store sales through e-commerce, and many small businesses have been working hard to build an online presence for the first time during the pandemic. But retailers are still stuck with fixed costs such as rent and are faced with additional warehousing and shipping costs related to e-commerce.

“You lose sales and it’s highly costly from a profitability point of view,” Ms. Reisman said. “We’ve had huge growth in online. But it doesn’t cover the full impact of closing retail, not even close.”

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce said in a statement Thursday that the reopening plan strikes a good balance between allowing economic activity and protecting public health.

But the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said in a statement that low-risk businesses, such as outdoor dining, should be allowed to reopen immediately, and more financial help is required to help business owners deal with mounting debt.

Industries that really heavily on in-person contact, such as restaurants, personal-care services and live events, have been hit particularly hard by the lockdowns.

Keneisha Williams, founder of the Black In Events Network, said organizers are looking for more public-health guidance on how to safely run outdoor and indoor events once they are permitted later this year. Professionals in the sector have gone more than 400 days without working, she said.

“The government should address this and provide a more structured strategy to helping our industry recover,” Ms. Williams said.

Personal-care services such as hair and nail salons will not be allowed to reopen until the plan’s second stage, in July.

Shawn Lewis, the owner of the Custom Cutz barber shops in Whitby and Pickering, said the closings have been devastating for business owners in his industry. Even with government subsidies, he said he has had to dip into his personal savings to cover some of the shops’ $10,000 a month in fixed expenses, such as rent.

“We’re literally losing our shops,” Mr. Lewis said. “And right after we lose our shops, we’re going to be losing our houses.”

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