Toronto businesses brace for holiday mired in pandemic restrictions

Toronto businesses are already feeling the impact of the latest round of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, which were brought in just days before the Christmas holiday and in the middle of busiest shopping season of the year.

Capacity limits come at busiest time of year for restaurants, retail shops

Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced Friday that capacity limits would be reimposed on most indoor spaces, including restaurants, bars, gyms, personal care services, retail stores and shopping malls. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Toronto businesses are already feeling the impact of the latest round of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, brought in just days before the Christmas holiday and in the middle of busiest shopping season of the year.

The province has imposed a 50 per cent capacity limit in several indoor public settings, including restaurants, bars, gyms, personal care services, retail stores and shopping malls. The measures took effect Sunday and are meant to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

"We're seeing line ups, of course," said Elana White, owner of the novelty gift shop Outer Layer on Queen St. W.

"It's kind of a drag that we have to reduce our capacity right now, although I understand why."

The restrictions are the latest blow to fragile businesses that have experienced reduced revenue and staffing challenges through several rounds of government-imposed constraints on their operations since the start of the pandemic.

White said she and her small team of employees are "tired and worried," particularly given the contagiousness of the new variant. While her store remains open, she is concerned about keeping it adequately staffed.

"If anybody is not feeling great — which has happened a couple of times during December — and has to take a few days home to rest or whatever, then yeah, that's a challenge because then we're short staffed," she said. "[I'm] working more than ever."

Elana White, owner of the Outer Layer gift shop on Queen Street West, says the new capacity limits come at what is normally the busiest time for her business. (CBC News)

Despite the limits on how many customers can shop inside, White said she is more worried about the owners and staff at restaurants and music venues.

"This is a lot harder for them than it is for us,"  she said.

'Couldn't come at a worse time'

In addition to the new capacity limits, the government rolled out rules for the hospitality industry: bars and restaurants that serve food and drink must close by 11 p.m.; the number of people permitted to sit at a table in a restaurant and bar is limited to 10; singing and dancing is barred at clubs; the sale of alcohol is restricted after 10 p.m.; and the consumption of alcohol in businesses is restricted after 11 p.m.

Meg Marshall, manager of the Queen Street West and Bloorcourt Village business improvement associations, said many restaurants in those areas have had to cancel holiday and New Year's parties, or are seeing reservations cancelled as people grow wary of eating out. 

She said some restaurants and shops are choosing to close indefinitely or pivot to curbside pickup or online-only shopping as a way to keep their staff and customers safe.

Meg Marshall, manager of the Queen Street West and Bloorcourt Village business improvement associations, said some businesses are pivoting to curbside pickup or online shopping following the announcement of new capacity restrictions, while others are closing indefinitely. ( Robert Krbavac/CBC)

"A lot of businesses often will do a large portion of their sales in November and December to kind of close the fiscal year," said Marshall. "So this couldn't come at a worse time."

Marshall encouraged Toronto residents to "get creative" in how they support local businesses.

"If they had reservations, maybe they could consider buying gift cards to those restaurants and ... supporting them through takeout," said Marshall. "By buying gift cards, businesses often get the money in their pockets now."

More support needed, restaurant association says

Meanwhile, business leaders are calling on the federal and provincial governments to provide immediate support to businesses to help them get through the latest round of restrictions.

Tony Elenis, president of the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motels Association, which represents over 12,000 hospitality businesses, said the government should consider an HST holiday in December, which would allow businesses to keep the money they collect for the harmonized sales tax.

"Hospitality operations have been operating through too much turbulence and pain," said Elenis. "We know today many are just hanging on the edge."

The federal government continues to provide targeted wage and rent support for some businesses, although Elenis said eligibility thresholds exclude many. Two provincial programs that offered business grants both ended earlier this year.

On Friday, Premier Doug Ford told reporters that the province is looking at ways to support businesses but he provided few details. 

"I know these measures will have an impact on businesses during the important season," Ford said on Friday. "Over the coming days ahead, these measures coming into effect, we will be exploring every option to provide more supports."


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