Shop owner says province's 'patchy regulations' and mixed messages are hurting business

Jim Watts wonders why the province would allow his business to stay open — then tell people not to go there.

'We're not essential. We should never have been reopened,' says Jim Watts

Jim Watts and his wife Tonja own Vagabond Saints Tattoo Lounge and Spa. Watts says his shop is not essential and the province's "patchy regulations" and mixed messages are hurting business. (Supplied by Jim Watts)

Jim Watts wonders why the province would allow his business to stay open — then tell people not to go there.

Watts co-owns Vagabond Saints Tattoo Lounge and Spa with his wife Tonja.

"We're not essential. We should never have been reopened," he said. "A tattoo is not worth somebody's health."

But, because his business is permitted to stay open, he fears shutting down voluntarily will mean cutting off access to government supports, and that deciding to stop serving customers could spell the end of his business.

The clash of conscience is further complicated by the fact that officials have repeatedly said people in red zones should only be leaving home for essential purposes.

"You can't tell us 'you have to be open for the sake of the economy' but then tell the economy 'don't go here, it's non-essential. You only go to school, work, groceries, medical,'" said Watts.

"It came off as oxymoronic in my opinion."

'Devastating consequences'

Frustration with Ontario's "patchy regulations" led Watts to put up a post on his shop's Twitter account. He says it quickly became clear he wasn't alone.

His tweets outlining the situation garnered hundreds of likes and a thread of comments with people commiserating.

During a media briefing Monday, Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's medical officer of health, said she understood the struggle the restrictions create for residents and business owners alike.

"I do understand that some of the messaging can cause some confusion for members of the public or for the business community, particularly when you do still see that we are trying to keep some settings open," she explained. "That's why it's so very important that we define for ourselves what we consider to be essential."

Keanin Loomis, president of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, said it's a tough time to find anything to say that will make businesses — especially small businesses like Vagabond Saints — feel any better.

"There's a significant amount of support out there from the federal government and the provincial government, but they don't make up for the loss of business … and we're going to certainly see the impact of that. There will be unfortunately some devastating consequences throughout our community," he said.

Moving to the red zone means businesses are required to have a safety plan and more proactive enforcement is likely, Loomis said.

As for whether or not businesses that can technically keep their doors open should do so, Loomis said that's a personal decision.

"It's going to be up to them and the individual customers if it makes sense for them to be open."

The province's website outlining help for businesses with COVID-19 costs shows personal care services, such as tattoo parlours, can qualify for property tax and energy bill rebates if they're in the red zone.

But businesses that weren't required to close or "significantly restrict services" are not eligible.

"[Ford] is telling us you have to be open because of the economy, so we're open. And then, we're not eligible for anything because we weren't mandated to shut down," said Watts.

"I'm originally from the states and I've never seen this kind of backwards thinking, even there."

His shop employs about nine people, but one tattoo artist left recently because they aren't taking walk-ins, only appointments.

The aesthetician who was working out of their location has also decided to close her business after Nov. 21.

Watts said she was suffering financially with so few customers coming through and that she was "spooked" by the rising restrictions.

'We're playing with fire'

Sanitization has always been an important part of running a tattoo shop, but during the pandemic Vagabond Saints has taken an even more active approach and posted its COVID-19 safety measures prominently on its website.

Since Hamilton moved into the the red zone, the shop has stopped doing any procedures that require masks to be removed, including piercing around the nose and mouth, along with tattoos above the shoulders.

While most customers are responsible, Watts says there's no way to tell who's coming through the door, and even if they're wearing a mask and sign the contact-tracing paperwork, to know whether they've been to a bar or large gathering where restrictions weren't followed.

"It's a gamble," he said, and he worries about the well-being of his staff and their loved ones.

"We're playing with fire and hoping not to get burned."