Retailers Begin Opening Stores in Canada as COVID-19 Restrictions are Lifted

There appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel for retailers and small businesses in Canada struggling to survive during the COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis.

A careful, phased approach to the reopening of the economy has begun in several provinces after many businesses were effectively shut down in mid-March to prevent the spread of the potentially deadly virus.

The reopening strategy is not universal but every province is taking a different approach to this recovery, particularly when it comes to the dates of when things will start returning to a normal state of affairs – whatever that will look like in the future.

The Retail Council of Canada has a list of the reopening dates in the provinces for non-essential retailers which can be found here. Also on its website the Council has a retail recovery checklist for retailers which can be found here.

“Obviously we are pleased to see the medical officers make determinations that the public health environment will sustain a reopening. Not only do we want that reassurance for our associates but we want customers to have that confidence too,” said Karl Littler, Senior Vice President, Public Affairs at Retail Council of Canada.

“In general, the rules or guidelines under which reopening is happening are reasonable with a couple of exceptions. For the most part we’re finding governments pretty reasonable to work with. Some of them are at different stages. It’s not like all the horses are coming up to the starter’s gate at the same time.”

In a Facebook post, Larry Rosen, Chairman and CEO of leading Toronto-based menswear retailer Harry Rosen, said the company’s first store reopened in Winnipeg at CF Polo Park.

“We are adhering to the strictest standards of social distancing, restricted entry and hygiene to ensure our people and clients are safe,” he said.

Dan Kelly, President of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said the organization welcomes the careful, phased approach to the reopening of the economy which began Monday in several provinces.

CFIB data indicates 80 percent of small firms are closed (fully or partially) with only 20 percent fully open and over 40 percent report that they may permanently close if the current restrictions remain in place until the end of May.

“So it is good news that some businesses in some provinces will be permitted to serve customers once again starting today. Quebec and Manitoba appear to be making the biggest moves, including allowing many retailers to resume in-store operations (outside of Montreal). Small firms feel they can play a positive role in continuing to flatten the curve. It doesn’t make sense that we force everyone to line up at Costco and Walmart to buy a t-shirt or frying pan just because they also sell groceries,” said Kelly.

EMPTY STOREFRONTS ON TORONTO’S QUEEN ST WEST. PHOTO: JESSICA FINCH

“Small, independent businesses are more naturally able to adjust to the need for ongoing physical distancing given they serve far fewer customers than the big box stores. We’ve learned a lot in the past six weeks. BC’s rules have been far more sensible through the entire pandemic, allowing many small firms (including retailers) to remain open with significant adjustments and protections. Learning from the grocery model of limiting the number of customers in-store, disinfecting between customers, barriers at checkouts where needed, small firms can be part of the solution if given the opportunity.”

“But it will be a messy recovery. Employees may be nervous to return to work or prefer to remain on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. Protective equipment may be difficult to find. Employers may not be sure what the rules of the game are. My advice for governments, business owners, employees, and customers: let’s be patient, careful and respect each other’s perspectives. We are in new territory—not everything will be clear or in place as it should. And we need to listen to the advice of medical officers. An uptick in COVID-19 cases or a handful of ‘yahoos’ may prompt a quick end to the phased reopening.”

As Canadian provinces prepare to relax their COVID-19 lockdown restrictions it could be well into this summer before consumers will feel completely comfortable venturing out again for non-essential shopping and restaurant dining, said Michael Kehoe, Lead Ambassador in Canada for the New-York based International Council of Shopping Centers.

“It is all subject to the status of the virus for any kind of normalcy to set in, with consumers spending and retailers and restaurants cash flowing in a positive manner. The goal of reopening the retail sector over the mid to long-term will focus on enticing customers back into the fold and to re-establish retail and restaurant teams in a safe manner,” said Kehoe, a veteran of more than 40 years in the industry and broker/owner of Fairfield Commercial Real Estate in Calgary.

“The entire reopening scenario will be dependent on the coveted female shopper feeling safe venturing out for non-essential shopping and dining with their families.”

While reopening will be helpful to some, the vast majority of small businesses will still struggle for a long time coming out of this, said Jon Shell, co-founder of the grassroots coalition Save Small Business, supported by about 40,000 small businesses across Canada.

“If governments and the media pretend that this slow reopening will fix the crisis in small business, they will be doing a great disservice to the community,” he said. “We are still in the ‘save from bankruptcy and evictions’ phase of the crisis, and if we want there to be businesses around to help the economy recover, that’s where our attention needs to be right now. Politicians can’t just ‘pivot’ to recovery, they have to keep their focus on saving businesses while planning the slow reopening of the economy.”

INDIGO AND ALDO STORES ON ROBSON STREET DURING COVID-19 PANDEMIC. PHOTO: LEE RIVETT

Rapid increases in testing and contact tracing are needed to hasten the re-opening of the economy, according to a C.D. Howe Institute working group.

Based on international experience, the Working Group on Business Continuity and Trade said widely available testing and effective tracing are essential to manage risks for health system capacity and workplace transmission, as a precursor to reopening the economy.

“The working group recommends that policymakers distinguish between ‘backstops’ and ‘bailouts.’ Providing temporary ‘bridge’ financing for immediate liquidity needs is distinct from government participation in long-term support for the restructuring of distressed companies. While governments must be conscious of taxpayer exposure, ensuring access to near-term credit is essential for businesses to be able to cover fixed costs,” said the C.D. Howe Institute in a statement.

“Even with near-term credit support, governments should expect a wave of corporate distress. For certain sectors, the downturn in demand is likely to be protracted. Governments will face political pressure to support specific failing companies and distressed sectors. Although the present crisis is distinct from the 2008-09 ‘credit crunch,’ governments should draw on past experience (e.g., restructuring of major auto-manufacturers) to define rigorous and principled criteria for decision-making and design of long-term, company-specific support.”

The Institute also said there is a need for greater detail in the provinces’ restart/recovery playbooks, including clear thresholds and indicators for decision-making about the easing of restrictions.

IMAGE: SALESFORCE WEBSITE

On Monday, Salesforce, the global leader in CRM, announced Work.com – new technology solutions and resources to help business and community leaders around the world reopen safely, re-skill employees and respond efficiently on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Work.com includes new solutions to accelerate private and public sector response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including employee wellness assessment; shift management; contact tracing; emergency response management; and grants and volunteer management. Salesforce said the Work.com Command Centre brings all data streams together so that businesses and communities can make more informed decisions.

Also, Work.com brings together health experts, business leaders and the Salesforce ecosystem in a resource centre informed by the Business Roundtable and the University of California San Francisco with insights from business, health and government leaders as well as analysis, best practices and recovery stories from our trusted partner ecosystem.

“Every company and community in the world is focusing on how to safely reopen and get to a new normal,” said Bret Taylor, President and COO, Salesforce. “With Work.com, we’re bringing together powerful new technology, our partners and network of experts to help organizations reopen and recover from this crisis while putting employee and visitor health and safety first.”

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He now works on his own as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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