Edmonton businesses brace for mandatory COVID-19 closures

Edmonton businesses are bracing for a second round of mandatory closures as Alberta brings in new public health measures to curb soaring COVID-19 cases. 

'The only way we can focus on economic recovery is to get COVID under control'

Custom Fit owner Jeff Woods will shut his gym on Sunday as new provincewide public health measures come into force, bringing widespread business closures. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Edmonton's service industry is bracing for a second round of mandatory closures as Alberta introduces new public health measures in an effort to curb soaring COVID-19 cases. 

Many businesses across Alberta will be ordered to close in-person services Sunday, with the exception of retail, which can operate at a reduced 15 per cent capacity. Regulated health services along with professional services, such as lawyers and accountants, can remain open by appointment only. 

The new measures unveiled Tuesday and effective until at least Jan. 12 tighten and extend the restrictions announced by Premier Jason Kenney last month. The previous restrictions applied only to COVID-19 hotspots, also known as enhanced status regions, and allowed most businesses to remain open at 25 per cent capacity. 

Chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw acknowledged Monday those measures were likely insufficient to bend the curve down, as active cases topped 20,000 in Alberta and hospitalization rates continued to climb. 

Restaurants will be ordered to close dine-in service but can offer takeout or delivery. Solo Diallo, co-owner of Mumbai Dakar, said he worries whether his restaurant will survive, but still supports the new measures.  

"We'll just try to outlast and then we'll see how far we can go," he told CBC's Edmonton AM on Wednesday. 

Despite an uncertain future, Diallo said he thinks Alberta should have ordered businesses to close sooner. 

'It's going to be a long haul'

For over a month, Kenney defied calls from hundreds of doctors to mandate provincewide business closures, arguing a lockdown would have damage the economy and people's mental health. 

The opposition NDP, along with some restaurant owners, said the province's previous restrictions amounted to half measures that would only prolong economic hardship by failing to control the spread of the virus. 

Announcing the new restrictions Tuesday, Kenney called the latest restrictions devastating but necessary.

"We are now at a place where viral transmission is so widespread in the community that it does not any longer matter how careful business operators are," he said.

Entertainment businesses, from casinos to children's play centres, must close under the new measures, along with all indoor recreation facilities such as gyms. Barbers, salons and all other personal services will also close their doors for at least the next month, starting Sunday. 

William Halabi says he will have to lay off 90 per cent of the staff at Chrome Spa Salon. (Peter Evans/CBC)

William Halabi, owner of Chrome Spa Salon, said it will mean laying off 90 per cent of the staff just as the business was preparing for what is typically the busiest time of year. Laid off staff could turn to federal employment insurance, with no worker-specific support at the provincial level. 

"It definitely will hurt us," Halabi said. "We will survive. We're going to make it but it's a hard one, it's going to be a long haul.

"We are here in the best interest of our clients and the greater safety of our community. So we understand that it is important for us to stay safe and be safe, and we are confident … that we need to make these changes." 

After the first lockdown in the spring, Jeff Woods said the number of personal trainers providing lessons out of his Custom Fit gym dropped to 10 from 21. Some trainers, he said, have transitioned to virtual lessons, a trend he expects to continue as the gym is ordered to close again. 

"I do feel that if we had lockdown sooner, we would have been able to control the situation," he said. "With our infection rates in Alberta, consumer confidence was so weak as a result because people were kind of scared to go out and support small business anyway."

Reinstate commercial eviction ban, hospitality group says

The Edmonton Chamber of Commerce put its support behind the new measures, with CEO Janet Riopel saying something had to be done as case numbers continued to "spiral out of control." 

"The only way we can focus on economic recovery is to get COVID under control," she said in a statement. 

The chamber praised the provincial government's commitment to expand a grant program for small- and medium-sized businesses. The program will provide up to $20,000, boosted from $5,000, for businesses that have experienced a 30 per cent revenue loss. That's down from the original 40 per cent revenue loss eligibility threshold. 

The Edmonton Independent Hospitality Group, in an open letter signed by 20 local businesses on Monday, called on the province to reinstate a commercial eviction ban and for the federal government to make emergency business account loans 100 per cent cancelable. 

"We are appealing to all levels of government to exercise extraordinary measures to save lives and small businesses together," the letter read. 

The Common will look to cocktail and recipe kits as a way to generate new revenue while dine-in service is ordered to close, says co-owner Rob Clarke. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Retail can remain open at a reduced 15 per cent capacity, an outlier among the business restrictions. 

Rob Clarke, a co-owner of Foosh on Whyte Avenue, said a full shutdown of local shops right before the holidays would have been "crushing," leaving retailers to compete with online behemoths such as Amazon. 

"To have that small portion is better than having it completely cut off, where we're then forced to have only online sales and were forced to compete with all the other online websites," he said.  

Clarke, who also co-owns downtown restaurant The Common, said the next few weeks will be about trying to find new ways to endure the latest measures. The restaurant will start offering recipe and cocktail kits as it shutters in-person dining. He said The Common also recently teamed up with local breweries on a beer advent calendar. 

"We have a really creative team here and we feel that the online gift packs and sales through the carriers will allow us to generate enough sales to keep our staff that we have employed, and allow us to work through sales to the holiday season," he said.