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Business owner and barber, Joseph Polsoni sees customer Tyler Mathies, on the last day he his able to open before a mandatory 28 day shut-down of his business, in Toronto, on Nov., 22, 2020Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Ontario’s move to limit non-essential retailers in Toronto and Peel Region to just curbside pickup or delivery could kill off thousands of small stores that count on make-or-break Christmas sales to survive, retail-industry associations say.

The Retail Council of Canada (RCC) and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) are pressing Ontario Premier Doug Ford to soften the blow for businesses as a large chunk of the Greater Toronto Area enters a COVID-19 lockdown just as holiday shopping season was supposed to begin.

“Missing out on sales in May was harmful, to miss out on Christmas is fatal,” said Dan Kelly, head of the CFIB. He warned that independent stores would see their customers migrate online and to places such as Walmart and Costco, which as grocery outlets are deemed essential and allowed to stay open with new 50-per-cent capacity limits. “This decision will ruin decades of work and thousands of businesses.”

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Customers line up at Walmart in Toronto, on Nov., 22, 2020.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Kelly, whose organization counts 42,000 member businesses in Ontario, said he will unveil a compromise proposal on Monday that would allow three people and three staff in a store, to give mom-and-pop operations some respite. Without any in-person shopping, he said, many businesses will be lucky to see 10 per cent of their regular sales, and could be forced to close for good.

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The RCC, which acts for large and small retailers, has been pushing for the government to allow shopping by appointment in non-essential stores. It intends to urge Ontario to reconsider the 28-day duration of the lockdown and allow some stores to reopen sooner, perhaps with capacity limits or health screening for customers.

Karl Littler, RCC senior vice-president, says his group and the CFIB have requested a meeting with the Premier this week. He says he understands the need for urgent measures to combat COVID-19, but argues that the risk of transmitting the disease while shopping is very low.

Statistics from Peel Region, he says, blame retail settings for just a tiny fraction of cases. And he says the government’s treatment of retail should be based on clear evidence.

“It’s frustrating for us that [the government’s approach] seems to be, ‘We’ll take a shot at anything, and hopefully achieve something,’ ” Mr. Littler said, calling the lockdown a blunt instrument.

Despite rising COVID-19 infections and pleas from politicians for residents to stay home, malls in Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region were jammed with last-minute shoppers over the weekend, as the 12:01 a.m. Monday start of Ontario’s new measures loomed. Some people fear crowds from lockdown areas will simply flood malls that remain open in York Region and Durham Region, even though the government is urging residents not to do this.

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People shop at Dufferin Mall in Toronto on Nov. 22, 2020.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

With cases rising across the country, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, repeated those pleas on Sunday, saying the best way to ensure a safe holiday season during the COVID-19 pandemic is to limit gatherings and only go out for essentials.

Her advice comes as Quebec and Ontario, the provinces with the most overall cases and deaths to date, recorded 1,154 and 1,534 new COVID-19 cases, respectively, over the past 24 hours. Meanwhile, Alberta recorded 1,584 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday, despite having less than a third of the population of Ontario.

Ontario’s 28-day lockdown, announced Friday, forces malls and most stores in Toronto and Peel to offer only curbside pickup or delivery. Businesses deemed essential – including stores that sell groceries, as well as pharmacies and hardware stores – may open, but with new 50-per-cent capacity limits. Restaurants are limited to only takeout and delivery, and gyms, barber shops and hair and nail salons must also shut down.

Mr. Ford has spoken repeatedly about how difficult the decision to restrict businesses was for him. But he said on Friday that urgent action was needed to get the virus under control and avoid overwhelming strained hospitals.

The Monday lockdown coincides with additional support from the provincial and federal governments for businesses affected by the changes. On Monday, applications will open for the delayed federal rent-support program for entrepreneurs. Ontario also said a previously announced $300-million fund to help offset property taxes and hydro bills will be doubled to $600-million, with applications to open Monday, as well. However, the CFIB called current provincial supports “a drop in the bucket.”

The issue of what Ontario businesses would be labelled essential was the subject of intense lobbying. One government source said Mr. Ford considered a policy, included in Manitoba’s recent lockdown, which bans essential retailers from selling non-essential goods, in order to level the playing field with stores forced to shutter. But Ontario rejected the idea as impractical. The Globe is not identifying the source because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the deliberations.

Andrew Morris, medical director of the antimicrobial stewardship program at Sinai Health System and University Health Network in Toronto, said Ontario’s new measures will make a difference. But he said the government has left itself few other options after failing to properly prepare its contact-tracing and testing systems for the second wave.

He said deciding which businesses to close is a political and economic balancing act, aimed at minimizing both transmission and damage to the economy – with no easy answers.

“Sometimes, the government doesn’t know what the right decision is. And you end up getting collateral damage,” Dr. Morris said. “There are people who end up getting punished in a pandemic and it is not like it’s intentional.”

Steve Freedman, owner of the Chesterfield Shop, a family owned furniture chain, has five locations in the Greater Toronto Area. All but one, in Newmarket – in York Region, outside the lockdown zone – will be closed by the lockdown order. Few of his customers shop online, he says, as “ours is more of a sit, touch and feel sort of business.” He says he is worried about the lockdown’s after-effects.

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Steve Freedman, owner of Chesterfield Shop, in North York, Ont., on Nov. 22, 2020.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

“I’m not a rebellious type, an outspoken type, but a lot of businesses may never recover from this,” Mr. Freedman said.

The impending lockdown also had barbershops busy over the weekend, before they too close for 28 days. Joseph Polsoni doesn’t usually open his B-Side Barbers shop in Toronto’s west end on Sundays. He took a break from his second 12-hour day cutting hair to express concern about what might happen to his two-year-old business if the lockdown lasts too long.

“It’s extremely frustrating, especially when you see how large corporations are taken care of,” Mr. Polsoni said.

With a report from Andrea Woo

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