Small businesses say they're at unfair disadvantage in Manitoba's new restrictions

New rules on closures are dealing another blow to smaller stores, owners say, while providing a loophole to big-box stores.

'Enormous big-box giants do sell some essential things like food' and so can stay open, says CFIB

PlantMomma, a store that sells plants in Winnipeg, has to close to shoppers because it is deemed non-essential. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Small business owners in Manitoba say new rules requiring their stores to close are dealing them another blow — while providing a loophole to big-box stores.

While small shops selling non-essential items have been ordered to close for at least two weeks under the province's latest COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, which came into effect Thursday, any store selling essentials like food or medication can remain open.

"If you look at your Walmart or Costco, these enormous big-box giants do sell some essential things like food and have pharmacies often built in," said Jonathan Alward, with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

"But they're also able to sell everything else that's not deemed critical by the province, like clothing or jewelry."

Alward wants Manitoba to consider blocking the sale of non-essential items in some stores, which some jurisdictions in the U.K. and the United States have done.

Manitoba's rules, though, mean while a hardware store that sells everything from rugs to plants can stay open, a small business like PlantMomma has to close.

The small business — which just recently opened its physical store in Winnipeg's North End — only sells plants, meaning it's considered non-essential. 

The closure has meant laying off half of the store's staff.

"We're adjusting to just to stay afloat. But yeah, the effect is more on the employees right now," said PlantMomma's Benjohn Villedo.

"We're in this for the long run. The plants will be here … but more so, our concern is everyone's health."

Meanwhile, if you need a T-shirt, you can also still get one at Walmart — but you won't be able to shop inside a small clothing store like Style Bar.

Owner Regan Bueti said she wants a line drawn to clarify what's essential and what's not.

"It bothers me that box stores can stay open because they have some essential goods, but they can sell what I'm selling and not have an issue," Bueti said.

For example, a Toys "R" Us store can stay open because it sells essential baby products like diapers — items that could also be bought at a pharmacy or grocery store.

"Some of the stores that are deemed essential, aren't essential," said Bueti. "It's hurting our businesses, for sure."

Regan Bueti, pictured here with her four-month-old daughter, is the owner of a Winnipeg clothing store. While big-box stores can stay open and sell clothing under new restrictions, smaller businesses that don't sell essentials need to close. (Zoom)

Both PlantMomma and Style Bar have switched to pickup and delivery options, but that's a challenge for a small business too, given the high cost of shipping, Bueti said.

Online sales also won't make a dent in what she might lose by having the store closed leading up to the holidays, she said.

"We're gearing up into Christmas season, and that's generally the time small businesses thrive. We have to close. We don't really know what the future of Christmas brings for this year, so that was the tough thing."

The province has promised a grant of $5,000 for the businesses effected by the closure.

The province's chief provincial public health officer said Thursday he's had lots of calls and letters from businesses wanting to exemptions from the closures.

"If we allowed all these, there wouldn't be a single thing required to close," Dr. Brent Roussin said.

"We are at a critical juncture right now in Manitoba. We need to make change."


Marina von Stackelberg is a senior reporter currently working for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. She previously worked as a reporter and host in Winnipeg, with earlier stints in Halifax and Sudbury. Her stories regularly appear across the country on CBC Radio and CBC News Network. Connect with her by email at or on social media @CBCMarina.


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