Ontario small-business owners are expressing a new level of frustration with the provincial government after a series of shifting restrictions that culminated in this week’s stay-at-home orders.
The new lockdown measures are driven by rising case counts throughout the province and are designed to keep Ontario residents in their homes, venturing out only for essential purposes such as work and medical appointments.
But the orders follow a series of announcements in late March that eased restrictions, such as allowing restaurants to operate outdoor dining.
“While previously there was frustration that boiled over into anger, this time it’s outright anger,” said Ryan Mallough, director of provincial affairs for Ontario for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
Liz Mok, owner of Moo Shu Ice Cream in Ottawa, said the shifting rules have caused a lot of stress for business owners, and that she sees a lack of transparency in government decision-making.
Although her store could continue to offer takeout during the current lockdown, she said she’s decided to close for the next four weeks because of how vulnerable her staff are to gathering crowds on busy Bank Street.
“The only way to survive in our business is to plan really carefully ahead,” she said. “It’s so easy to get so frustrated because of all this uncertainty. It feels impossible to plan for.”
She said she would also like to see the government improve supports for workers, such as increased mental-health care.
General fatigue with the pandemic and the public-health orders required to contain the virus have also worn on Premier Doug Ford’s poll numbers.
An Angus Reid Institute online survey released Friday suggested that the approval ratings of all premiers have taken a hit in the past year. However, Mr. Ford’s drop was one of the largest: to the low 30s this month from the high 70s in April, 2020.
Still, the provincial Tories continue to lead their rival New Democrats and Liberals in fundraising.
Privately, many Tories fume about the government’s handling of the issue, believing Mr. Ford relied too heavily on medical professionals to make his decisions, and turned his back on core supporters. But few have spoken out in public after Toronto MPP Roman Baber was kicked out of caucus for opposing government lockdowns.
And instead of voting for other parties, Conservatives who oppose the government may just not show up for the next election.
Amanda Galbraith, a Conservative strategist and principal at Navigator public-affairs firm, said small businesses have been “tremendously upset” by the constantly shifting opening rules and lack of financial support.
“I don’t know how you put that toothpaste back in the tube with a lot of them,” she said. But, broadly speaking, she said the party’s voter base appreciates Mr. Ford’s attempts to keep businesses open as much as possible in the face of resistance from the medical community.
Mitchell Davidson, Mr. Ford’s former policy chief, said it runs completely counter to the Progressive Conservative Party’s DNA to have to bring in sweeping shutdowns on businesses – after having promised to cut red tape and lower taxes before the pandemic started.
“The reality is, Doug Ford ran on a pillar of being open for business and has closed more businesses than any other premier ever, through no fault of his own,” said Mr. Davidson, now with public-affairs and communications consulting firm StrategyCorp. “That is just fundamentally opposed to their worldview.”
The biggest support programs have come from the federal government – such as the wage and rent subsidies, and the Canada Emergency Business Account loans – while it has largely fallen to the provincial government to institute the lockdowns.
The Ontario government has offered grants of between $10,000 to $20,000 for small businesses that have seen revenue decline, as well as rebates on property taxes and hydro costs. But Mr. Davidson suggested they could do more. For example, he said, Ontario could temporarily waive sales taxes for small restaurants under lockdown – measures unlikely to inspire much opposition.
One of the greatest sources of anxiety for small businesses is the way that orders have fallen unevenly across sectors. While places such as construction sites or warehouses have had fewer restrictions, those in personal care or food services have seen their activities more heavily restricted. As well, many large stores owned by multinational companies have been generally allowed to operate, while independent businesses were closed to in-person shopping.
Paola Girotti, owner of Sugarmoon Salon in Toronto and Burlington, said the closing of personal-care services such as hair or nail salons – which mostly have female owners – has placed a disproportionate economic impact on women and racialized communities.
“We’ve been closed since November, and the cases keep going up,” said Ms. Girotti, chair of the Beauty United Council of Ontario. “We’re not contributing to that. Can you imagine how we feel watching the Costcos, the Ikeas, the malls, and no one’s contact tracing, no one has to follow the same protocols we do?”
Keith Burgess, owner of Pet Paradise in Newmarket, said it has been a little annoying to have to close his independent pet shop this week, while the Walmart, Metro and Dollarama stores next to him remain open. “I see a lot of people going in and coming out with pet supplies now that are definitely my customers,” he said.
But while some stores in the province may flout the lockdown, Mr. Burgess – who got his first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday – said it’s important for everyone to follow the rules, whatever they are.
“In order to stop this virus, we all got to work together,” he said. “We all got to bite the same bullet.”
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