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A man stands in front of the Nordstrom store, closed for in-store shopping in downtown Toronto, on Nov. 23, 2020.

GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is rejecting a push from prominent retailers to reopen non-essential stores in Toronto and Peel, a day after they published an open letter urging the government to allow 25 per cent capacity in retail shops in lockdown regions.

Mr. Ford on Wednesday said he feels the pain of business owners who are forced to close until at least Dec. 20 during the lockdown, but said he is listening to the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health and others guiding his government during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’d switch those things open in a heartbeat. But I can’t. I have to listen to the health experts,” Mr. Ford said during his daily press briefing at Queen’s Park.

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“I’m a businessperson. I don’t want to close these down. But health trumps my personal belief.”

As part of the lockdown, big-box stores selling essential items – such as Costco and Walmart – are allowed to open at 50 per cent capacity, while other retail stores and small businesses cannot offer in-store shopping and are forced to sell items for delivery or curbside pickup only.

A coalition of nearly 50 retailers, including Canadian Tire, Indigo, Hudson’s Bay and others, this week called on the Ontario government to lift the 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 Peel Region, which includes Mississauga and Brampton, and in Toronto is “an ineffective policy” that puts retail businesses at risk of failure. The group called for Ontario to implement store capacity limits at 25 per cent of the building capacity for all retailers – not selective lockdowns with big-box stores open at 50 per cent capacity.

Signatories pushing for the changes said Wednesday they felt unfairly targeted by the government’s rules.

“[Retailers] feel undeservedly singled out as an initiative to stop the spread of COVID-19, when in fact the government’s own statistics indicate that retail is not a significant source of spread,” Leon’s Furniture Ltd. president and chief executive officer Edward Leon said in an e-mail on Wednesday.

David Bensadoun, CEO of the Aldo Group Inc., said the decision to keep non-essential stores shuttered would drive customers to American stores.

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“Every time we do a lockdown of specialty stores, we’re hurting Canadian retail,” he said.

“Even though Canadian retailers have terrific online experiences, they cannot compete with the big American players for ad dollars, so when we shift consumers online, we’re largely shifting them to Amazon, Walmart and other American mega-players. I don’t envy Ford’s position, I don’t think it’s easy. But in this case I think he’s made a mistake, and the sooner he corrects it the better, because these are the biggest weeks of the year for shopping.”

Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo Books & Music Inc., said by funnelling more people into fewer stores, “you actually cause longer waiting lines with chance for closer contact. ... This could create higher health risk while doing devastating damage to hundreds of businesses.”

Mr. Ford acknowledged that keeping big-box stores open for in-store shopping is “not fair,” but said they are intended to be a one-stop shop for groceries and other essential items. However, those stores also sell non-essential goods such as clothing, toys and gifts.

Ryan Mallough, director of provincial affairs for Ontario at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said small businesses are also calling for the government to present data that back up the need to keep independent retailers shuttered. His group has called for limited in-person and appointment-only shopping during the holiday season.

“If there’s any evidence that shopping at a busy big-box store with a couple hundred other people, even at 50 per cent capacity, is safer than at a small business with two or three other people, then show that data. Because right now that is one of the immensely frustrating things,” he said.

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Ontario reported 1,723 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, as well as 35 new deaths owing to the virus. Toronto and Peel account for more than half of the new infections, with 500 cases reported in Peel and 410 in Toronto. There were 196 new cases in York Region, north of Toronto, which is not in lockdown and still allows in-person shopping in malls and stores.

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