What's essential anyway? Confusion reigns over holiday COVID-19 restrictions

Without a detailed list of what is considered an essential good, the definition varies from one business to another.

Which items can be purchased in-store in Quebec has been limited until Jan. 11

While big box stores like Costco and Walmart remain open, much of their stock can only be purchased online. (Jay Turnbull/CBC)

Holiday COVID-19 restrictions in Quebec are causing confusion among merchants and consumers, who must decide on their own what qualifies as an essential good.

The government has ordered all non-essential businesses remain closed until Jan. 11. And for those that are permitted stay open, only essential goods can be sold.

Introducing the measures earlier this month, Premier François Legault said this was to ensure big box stores would not benefit from smaller businesses being closed for two weeks.

But without a detailed list of what is considered an essential good, what is available for sale varies from one business to another.

Broad guidance has been provided by the government: toys, clothing, books, electronics, appliances and furniture cannot be sold in stores, nor picked up curbside.

In an email, Quebec's Economy and Innovation Ministry said the decision was made to give discretion to business owners due to the challenge of "establishing a complete and satisfactory list, and seeing the difficulties encountered in other jurisdictions."

The following businesses are authorized to remain open:

  • Grocery stores and other food service establishments.
  • Pharmacies (only for products essential to daily life).
  • Hardware stores (only for products required for exterior maintenance, repairs or construction).
  • Gas stations.
  • Pet food and supply stores.
  • Work equipment outlets (safety and protective equipment only).
  • Businesses selling goods necessary for transportation logistics and maintenance of vehicles, or providing repair and maintenance for vehicles.

The ministry says it is preferable to have "certain divergences in interpretation" in what constitutes an essential good rather than providing an incomplete list.

The department also noted that non-essential goods can continue to be purchased online, but they must be delivered.

Richard Darveau, president of an association representing Quebec hardware stores, says its members have been dealing with customer frustration over unclear rules surrounding what can be purchased.

Chloé Maurice, a mother of a two-month-old baby from Saint-Léonard, said she could not understand why she was unable to purchase nursing pads at her local Walmart.

"How can we decide that nursing pads and all the products that help with nursing are not for sale, but we can buy bags of chips?" she said.

With reporting by Radio-Canada's Jean-François Poudrier and Mariève Bégin

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