Small Businesses Growing Increasingly Frustrated with Ontario Protocols

Owners of small businesses in Ontario have been facing near-constant uncertainty for the past several months regarding their ability to open. Since December, the province-wide lockdown has meant that most small businesses including retail stores, personal services and gyms, have been required to close completely. The fact that many large stores, including grocery chains as well as mixed-use stores such as Walmart and Costco, have been able to continue to open has left many small retail owners frustrated and looking for answers.

A recent article in the Toronto Star highlights the frustrations felt by many small business owners who are choosing to band together as a group, calling themselves “We Are All Essential”. The businesses making up the group are making plans to open their doors on February 11th, the day after the original stay-at-home order was set to expire, even if provincial protocols don’t yet permit them to.

The group is spearheaded by the owner of an Etobicoke barbeque restaurant who made headlines in 2020 by defying mandated regulations prohibiting in-person dining and mandating masks in public spaces. Despite the legal ramifications, including fines and arrest, the owner insists that businesses have reached a tipping point and plan to defy the orders once again. There are purportedly over 400 businesses throughout the province that plan to join the protest.

Small Business Advocates Advise Adherence to Rules

While many may see open defiance as the only option, several small business advocates feel it is important to adhere to the protocols and seek a change in policy instead. Speaking to the Star, Ryan Mallough, Ontario regional director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said:

I understand the frustration and anger. It’s very real, and I’m hearing it from our members. But opening up right now is against the law. If you do it, you’re risking a substantial fine and court appearances, and the costs that go with that.

Those who openly defy the law could face stiff penalties and even jail time. Fines under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act could be as high as $100,000, and a year in jail for individuals. Businesses face even higher fines, upwards of $10 million.

Speaking to media just yesterday, Toronto officials made it clear they would be responding to any violations of the mandates to stay closed as needed. The city’s Fire Chief said they “will take appropriate enforcement action against any business that operates in contravention of the regulations governing the operation of non-essential businesses as we have done throughout the pandemic”.

Province Announces Potential End to Stay at Home Orders by Region

Also yesterday, Premier Doug Ford made an announcement that the province may be looking to reopen all retail businesses in the coming weeks. As infection numbers have been on a decline in recent weeks, the province plans to revert back to a colour-coded system by region or health unit. As of February 10th, three regions will enter the green category, which allows for the laxest regulations. The stay-at-home orders in those regions will also be lifted at the same time.

The province also expects that nearly all other regions in the province will have the stay-at-home order lifted on February 16th. This is not official just yet and will be confirmed closer to the date. Following the lifting of the order, the province will move all regions into the appropriate colour-coded category based on infection rates.

York, Toronto and Peel are expected to remain under the stay-at-home order until at least February 22.

Perhaps the most significant change mentioned in the announcement is that retail stores will remain open in all levels of the new categories; something that did not occur previously. Even in the most stringent level, grey, or lockdown, non-essential retail stores will be permitted to open with limited capacity. In the case of a lockdown, that capacity will be limited to 25%.

While non-essential retailers can expect permission to reopen soon, the same cannot be said of certain businesses such as gyms, personal services including salons, or restaurants when it comes to in-person dining. No announcements have been made stating anything with certainty for these sectors just yet.

The lawyers at Prudent Law in Mississauga are diligent advocates for both their corporate and individual clients in a variety of business and litigation matters. They provide practical advice and experienced representation to new and established businesses. If you would like to discuss your business options with one of our experienced corporate or litigation lawyers, please call us at 905-361-9789 or contact us online.

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