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Crowds of people line up outside a clothing store in Toronto on Sunday November 22, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Small-business owners in Manitoba and parts of Ontario are angry, with good reason. Provincial leaders, along with the federal government, had months to plan for the inevitable second wave of COVID-19 – months to think about ways to avoid the economic devastation of the lockdowns levied the first time around.

Second-wave restrictions were supposed to be better – smarter, targeted and evidence-based – thanks to the new knowledge and tools ostensibly collected over the past eight months. But it’s as if premiers Brian Pallister and Doug Ford spent the past few months just fortifying their sledgehammers, deaf to the information that should have convinced them to opt for needle-nose pliers instead. The result is that small businesses have been forced to close their doors ahead of the busiest shopping time of the year, all while big-box retailers enjoy their governments’ blessings to welcome their customers inside.

As of Monday, “non-essential” retailers in Toronto and Peel may operate only for delivery and curbside pickup, though supermarkets, “big-box retailers selling groceries,” hardware and other exempted stores may allow in-person shopping at 50 per cent capacity. That means that local mom-and-pop toy stores and sporting goods shops cannot allow patrons inside, but Walmart is free to continue selling Lego, hockey sticks, scooters and whatever else you need for Christmas.

Manitoba has attempted to level the playing field by banning big-box stores from selling so-called “non-essential” goods as long as non-essential retailers are closed for in-store shopping (meaning stores like Walmart will have to cordon off their Lego), which is great news for Jeff Bezos but doesn’t really help small-business owners make up for earlier lockdown losses. Federal relief measures such as the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy, loans through the Canada Emergency Business Account and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (as well as provincial tools such as tax deferrals and tools to help businesses get online) may help some small businesses stave off imminent closing, but they are no substitute for getting shoppers in the door, particularly during the vital holiday season.

Back in March, near the beginning of the pandemic, provincial leaders could be excused for using a sledgehammer approach to shutting down the economy. The scientific community knew very little about COVID-19, including how it spread, where it was being transmitted and whether individuals could be infected but asymptomatic. Testing was severely limited (Ontario could test around 3,000 people a day; Manitoba could test 500) and the public had little familiarity with new routines such as robust and frequent handwashing and physical distancing. Few people wore masks in public and there were no provincial orders for wearing masks, and we had yet to collect any information about the relative safety of indoor dining compared with shopping for light fixtures or participating in spin classes.

Nine months on, much of this has changed. We know that unmasked exercise classes and choir practices are much riskier than furniture shopping, since fomite (surface) transmission appears to be less of a concern than droplet or aerosol transmission. Testing has been expanded considerably in Ontario (though Manitoba is still only testing about 3,000 people a day).

We also have some (albeit incomplete) information about the environments where COVID-19 has been spreading. Public-health data published by Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table last month indicated that industrial settings accounted for the highest percentage of known outbreaks in Peel (22 per cent), followed by schools and daycares (20 per cent), then combined grocery, service and retail (19 per cent).

In Toronto, grocery, service and retail accounted for just 4 per cent of outbreaks (compared to 22 per cent in schools and daycares and 18 per cent in long-term care), which should infuriate owners of hair salons and small bookstores who have now been forced to shut down. This data is limited, however, in that we do not know the size of the outbreaks, nor can Ontario account for the epidemiological link for about a third of its cases.

But it’s more information than we had back in March, and it should be enough to justify a more targeted approach to lockdowns nine months later. More robust contact tracing and the dispatch of rapid tests (for which we are still waiting) could have made that justification even stronger, and protected small businesses from the government sledgehammer that threatens their livelihoods at this most important time. But testing, contact tracing and evidence-based policymaking has fallen short. COVID-19 was to blame for the broadness of the first shutdown, but government screw-ups and incompetence are to blame for the extensiveness of the second. Everyone should be angry about that.

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