Manitoba businesses scramble to meet strict rules for reopening Monday

Some Manitoba businesses are racing to meet strict rules around sanitation and distancing in order to reopen Monday, after the province unveiled broad rollbacks of COVID-19 restrictions set to take effect next week.

Manitoba's multi-phase plan for reopening economy unveiled Wednesday, begins May 4

Premier Brian Pallister announced Manitoba's plan for reopening the economy on Wednesday. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Some Manitoba businesses are racing to meet strict rules around sanitation and distancing in order to reopen Monday, after the province unveiled upcoming broad rollbacks of COVID-19 restrictions.

The first phase of Manitoba's reopening plan starts May 4 and will allow the reopening of a wide variety of businesses, ranging from hair stylists to clothing stores, Premier Brian Pallister announced Wednesday.

"It's very, very soon," said Kelly O'Leary, co-owner of Sapphire Hair Lounge on Academy Road.

She and her partner closed the salon on March 17 in an effort to keep staff and clients safe — weeks ahead of provincial orders requiring non-essential businesses to close that took effect April 1.

They've been watching the news and other provincial plans closely since, she said, in preparation for Manitoba's eventual update.

But reopening comes with a suite of rules to prevent a future surge of COVID-19 cases that businesses like O'Leary's must now prepare for.

"I want to be clear. This is not an announcement about a return to normal … because the normal will be a new normal," Pallister said. "You can't step into the same river twice."

The requirements include offering hand sanitizer to anyone coming in, limiting customers to a single entrance and maintaining a two-metre distance between anyone inside, except for brief exchanges.

Under the new rules, all businesses must limit occupancy to 50 per cent of their normal business levels or one person per 10 square metres, whichever is lower. They also have to maintain a single point of entry and regulate that entry, including any lines that form, to prevent congestion.

All staff must use the province's self-screening tool before coming to work, and customers with COVID-19 symptoms aren't allowed in.

Kelly O'Leary, co-owner of the Sapphire Hair Lounge, says she plans to reopen her salon on May 19 so she has time to procure equipment, prepare staff and plan appointments safely. (Submitted by Kelly O'Leary)

Excited as she is to see her clients again, Sapphire Hair Lounge's O'Leary she didn't anticipate seeing salons in the province's first wave of openings, alongside health-care services like elective surgeries.

Hairstylists and barbers that open Monday have added restrictions beyond those for retailer. Their services are limited to hair washes, cuts, colouring and styling. Salons need to keep workstations two metres apart and sanitize those stations, and their equipment, between clients. Anything that can't be cleaned between clients can't be used.

Magazine racks or toys in waiting rooms have to be removed and play areas need to be closed, and any food or drink options, like coffee stations, need to be shut down. Non-medical masks and gloves are optional for employees, the province says.

O'Leary plans to wait until May 19 to reopen her salon, so she and her team can finish procuring equipment, preparing staff and scheduling safely spaced-out appointments. 

She's concerned the province's plan now puts businesses in the position of having to explain to clients why they can't open right away.

"[Staff] are very, very nervous about going back. And as an owner, me and my partner have to make sure that we do everything that we can to make them feel safe," she said.

"At this point, that is pushing back our date a little bit more until we are absolutely ready."

Revenue 'awfully close to zero'

Weeks of shuttered stores have been financially devastating for some businesses. Chris Hall, co-owner of McNally Robinson Booksellers, said he's down to 10 per cent of his former staffing levels and around 10 per cent of usual revenue.

"We got awfully close to zero," Hall said Wednesday.

Like O'Leary, Hall said he was caught off guard by the timing of Manitoba's plan. McNally also has a location in Saskatoon, where provincial reopening plans had previously been announced, and Hall was anticipating more notice.

"But hey, we'll take it," he said. "If it's safe to open, then let's get open."

The province's rules also say tha businesses that open must allow no more than 10 people to gather in common areas, so Hall said he's in the process of clearing his store's floor of chairs, tables and other obstacles to flow. 

He's hoping to open to customers Monday — as long as he can find enough hand sanitizer.

"That's maybe the biggest challenge," he said. "All of this presumes that we will be able to put those sorts of things in place."

Along with bookstores like Hall's, businesses that the province's plan says will be allowed to open on Monday include:

  • Clothing and shoe stores.
  • Jewellers.
  • Tailors.
  • Flower shops.
  • Lodges and outfitters.
  • Sporting goods/adventure stores.
  • Vaping supply shops.
  • Boat, ATV and snowmobile dealers.
  • Gift, book and stationery stores.
  • Toy stores.
  • Music, electronic and entertainment stores.
  • Pawn shops.
  • Pet groomers.

Questions remain

Among the strict rules, some businesses still have questions about how it will all work.

Kelsey Steuart, owner of Margot + Maude Lifestyle Boutique, said she still needs to iron out issues like changing rooms, which provincial regulations didn't address.

The past several weeks have hit her business hard, she said, since apparel retailers rely on March and April sales to fuel them through the summer.

"It is a bit … confusing," she said. "But I want people to be safe."

Steuart also said she'd expected more time to prepare for reopening, after the province extended its state of emergency until late May, and had started a handful of shop upgrade projects she now needs to finish quickly.

But the strong relationship her business has with its clientele has her hopeful people will be back in the store and shopping soon. 

"I was excited [about the reopening], and then … little bit nervous," she said. "But I think we'll be able to pull everything together, at least … sometime during that week."

WATCH | Premier Pallister on multi-phased reopening in the province | April 29, 2020:

Premier Brian Pallister announces multi-phased reopening

4 years ago
Duration 51:03
As of May 4, a variety of non-essential health care and retail businesses in Manitoba will have the option of reopening under strict guidelines.

Requirements for businesses will be enforceable under public health orders, the province says. Pallister said Wednesday officials are in the process of stepping up enforcement.

"These penalties are real," he said. "There have been fines imposed already, numerous warnings have been given and educational material continues to be distributed more widely to make sure that we're reducing the number of incidents."

But the vast majority of business owners want to do the right thing and will be working extremely hard in the coming days to do so, said John Graham, director of government relations for the Prairie region with the Retail Council of Canada.

The council was closely involved in creating rules so Manitobans can shop safely, he said. Reopening businesses is like "waking up from a nightmare," he added.

"A lot of Manitobans are going to continue to be apprehensive about going into local retail stores, concerned about whether it's safe for their personal health," he said. "And that's why retailers are going to go above and beyond to create the right conditions for slowing the spread of COVID."

As businesses figure it out, O'Leary said she hopes customers and clients are patient with their service providers.

"I think that people need to be sensitive to the fact that our jobs aren't the way that we left them. You know, it's going to be different for a long time, and there's some big time feelings with that whole situation," she said.

"But we've got to do it and we will — and yes, it'll be unprecedented."