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Crowds of people line up outside an electronics store in Toronto on Nov. 22, 2020, the day before the region headed back into lockdown.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Members of Ontario’s provincial Parliament received hundreds of letters in recent days from business owners and staff urging the government to lift lockdowns of non-essential stores.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is set to announce details of the province’s reopening plan as early as Monday, which could change retail rules. The letter-writing campaign is part of an increased lobbying effort by the Retail Council of Canada to encourage the provincial government to ease restrictions on the industry.

Mr. Ford’s government is not expected to extend the province’s state of emergency, which expires on Tuesday. The current stay-at-home order will stay in place across much of the province for at least another week, although some regions will transition back to the province’s colour-coded framework this week with fewer restrictions. The stay-at-home order in the hot spots of Toronto, Peel Region and York Region will not expire until at least Feb. 22, although it could be extended if numbers increase. Even when the stay-at-home order expires, certain restrictions on gatherings and businesses will remain in place.

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Ontario on Sunday reported 1,489 new cases of COVID-19, with 517 new cases in Toronto, 261 in Peel and 121 in York Region. The province has returned to having the lowest number of active cases per capita outside of Atlantic Canada and the territories.

With COVID-19 case numbers improving, Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said the province is “moving in the right direction.”

“The Premier is going to let people know very soon about the reopening of the economy to get people back to work,” he said on Friday.

The Retail Council has spent months advocating for both essential and non-essential retailers to be permitted to open with capacity limits; the industry group is arguing for a 20-per-cent cap on customer traffic in stores.

“Ontario now stands alone in Canada, with an ongoing limit,” said Retail Council senior vice-president Karl Littler, referring to recent moves by Manitoba and Quebec to allow retailers to reopen. “A low-capacity but diffuse model is better than picking a bunch of winners and losers, and getting into ‘essential’ versus ‘non-essential’ category definitions.”

The council’s campaign resulted in nearly 1,000 letters sent to MPPs and cabinet members this week. The group provided a form letter that retailers and staffers could use, which decried the “economic carnage” created by the lockdowns. Including the letters sent this week, more than 2,000 have been sent since the latest lockdowns began in December.

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On Friday, Statistics Canada reported unexpectedly high unemployment numbers for January. Of the 167,600 jobs lost in the retail sector last month, nearly all were in Ontario and Quebec. Both provinces brought in new restrictions in late December in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, including shutting down non-essential retailers.

Both individual retailers and industry groups have argued that Ontario’s data have not shown a link between new infections and shopping trips.

But managing the risk from customer visits is only part of the picture, said Zain Chagla, a professor of medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton and an infectious-disease physician.

“With safety plans and strict customer policies, the risk isn’t really there from the customer; it’s more the workplace relationships that can drive the issue,” Dr. Chagla said.

He added that businesses need to ensure employees have access to personal protective equipment and information on how to use it properly, as well as a safe place to take breaks while maintaining distancing from coworkers. And businesses have to have a plan to make sure employees are screened and have access to testing if necessary.

“You can create a store environment where customers are distanced and masked, but what happens when you have two or three employees in a store?” Dr. Chagla said.

Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician who sits on the province’s vaccination task force, said even though case numbers have dropped dramatically, there is still an “unacceptable” number of new cases per day and the variant strains of the coronavirus are a growing concern. He said various factors need to be in place to ensure the health system is not stretched.

“Reopening doesn’t mean flicking a light switch and just say okay, it’s a free for all,” Dr. Bogoch said. “It’s got to be slow and careful with the ability to pivot and the ability to respond to cases.”

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