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Small businesses most threatened by lockdowns

In an ideal world, an early lockdown and our stringent adherence to public health measures would have nipped the novel coronavirus in the bud. That’s not what happened. Nor have on-and-off attempts since last March been completely fruitful.

The number of COVID-19 cases has dropped significantly since the holidays, but is still well above low-water marks seen in the summer despite the stay-at-home orders issued last month, still in effect for a few more days, at least in theory. Not everyone took all the necessary precautions, so the spread continues at a greater rate than what might have been.

In the end, we have a trade-off between our choices, overly restrictive governance and the economy.

Arguments about liberties and freedom, more muted here than in other countries – the U.S., for example – haven’t had much resonance, as most of us recognize there’s a health-related crisis. Likewise, governments in this country have been less inclined to employ draconian measures to keep people away from one another, unlike authoritarian regimes. Most pressingly, people still have to work, shop for essentials and care for loved ones, among other reasons total self-isolation wasn’t a viable option.

The last of those, our need to carry on some facets of regular life, can’t be understated, though that isn’t carte blanche for people not to carry out precautions such as mask-wearing and keeping their distance. Still, the likes of grocery shopping, medical issues and care-giving made outings essential.

Which brings us to lockdown protocols that appear both unclear and unfair. The province’s colour-coded system – which will be back in play after the stay-at-home order is lifted on February 16 – is not clearly delineated, and there are multiple exceptions. Similarly, the now-over state of emergency provided many loopholes. Most unfairly, measures seem to favour large retailers over small businesses – we’ve just come through a stretch in which big-box stores remained open while many smaller operations were either forced to close or simply found restrictions rendered opening unaffordable.

Waterloo Region’s board of health recognizes the disparity, last week calling on the province to revamp the Reopening Ontario Act to help small businesses. The board noted the playing field was tilted towards big operations.

Already under pressure prior to the pandemic, small retailers and restaurants, for example, have for the past year ceded much ground to corporate operations and, perhaps more ominously, online services.

The retail environment has been especially unstable for years, of course. It’s no secret the retail landscape is changing. Such is how it’s always been. But, just like the economy, it’s been hollowed out in the middle. Under pressure today from big-box retail, much as they were from the malls in previous generations, small businesses – the mainstays of downtown cores that are the subject of angst in just about every municipality – are having to cope with change, like it or not.

With the bulk of us seeing declining buying power and punishing debt levels, it’s not surprising these same business interests make changes in order to coax the remaining dollars out of our wallets.

Where malls were once king, power centres abound … for now. Online shopping continues to pull ahead, with the behemoth that is Amazon set to outstrip the sales of major retail stores – Amazon has been posting record profits through the pandemic, though the brick-and-mortar Walmart has been making out like a bandit, as well.

No stranger, then, to marketplace adversity, small businesses have faced nothing like the government-mandated closures/restrictions that have been especially crippling since the first lockdown last March.

Easing the restrictions is a must, as of late even those of us intent on shopping locally can’t do much when the sign says “Sorry, we’re closed.”

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