Calls to cut off big-box non-essential shopping grow Meredith Bond

The Ontario government says it will likely make an announcement about COVID-19 safety enforcement at big-box stores Wednesday, as the chorus grows louder for the province to limit large stores to only selling essential goods.

“It would assist everybody dealing with this by not encouraging those big line ups out there,” says John Kiru, executive director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA).

The association of local business groups is among those ringing the alarm bells over the crush of shoppers heading out for non-essential goods and calling for fairness for smaller retailers.

During the first weekend of the province’s stay-at-home order, long lineups of shoppers wrapped around warehouses, and in one case, shoppers were standing together under a crowded overhang, waiting to enter a Costco. Inspectors were also out enforcing existing rules.

A spokesperson for the minister of labour told CityNews in a statement last Saturday, inspectors found 69 per cent of large retailers were complying with the rules.

Inspectors visited 240 stores across the GTHA. Of those, 75 visits found violations of COVID-19 safety rules. Inspectors handed out 26 formal warnings, 23 tickets and 53 orders.

“What goes through my head is: clearly, we are not the problem,” says Kiru. He suggests the province allow small retailers to reopen to in-person shopping, and to limit big-box stores to essentials only.

The province says it will continue its big-box enforcement blitz.

CityNews reached out to both Walmart and Costco asking about what percentage of their sales are non-essential goods. A spokesperson for Walmart said the company does not release that type of information.

“People will support local given the opportunity,” says Kiru. “By appointment-based shopping, getting a few dozen people through our doors would be very important.”

He adds that Toronto small businesses are shuttering at a rate never seen before. TABIA data indicates at least 70 shops have closed on the stretch of Queen Street West between University and Strachan Avenues.

“The time for crisis spending is over. We need to focus on the recovery and keep as many businesses that are in place right now in business, so that we can recover,” he says.

The call to limit big-box stores to essential goods first came from the Mayor of Mississauga several weeks ago, when Peel and Toronto entered the grey-zone lockdown. Toronto Councillor Brad Bradford has been working with the City’s 84 BIAs throughout the pandemic and is hoping Premier Doug Ford is listening.

“All of these measures are about limiting our interaction and reducing the spread,” says Bradford. “So, to my mind sticking around and browsing through a big-box store for 45 minutes goes against the objective.”

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