Toronto businesses prepare to reopen on Monday, but the spectre of 'back-and-forth' closures still looms

After nearly a year of bouncing in and out of various public health orders and reconfiguring her family's business on the fly, Lili Tran wants Monday to mark the start of a smoother and more predictable path back to normalcy.

Toronto's non-essential retail stores can open at 25% capacity

Lili Tran at the cash register inside Tap Phong Trading Co. The store plans to open Monday when some COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. (Sam Nar/CBC)

After nearly a year of bouncing in and out of various public health orders and reconfiguring her family's business on the fly, Lili Tran Anstee wants Monday to mark the start of a smoother and more predictable path back to normalcy.

"We've had enough of this back-and-forth," said Tran Anstee, a third generation employee at the restaurant and cooking supply store Tap Phong Trading Company.

"I'm hopeful, but the pragmatist in me is saying that it's probably going to continue on."

On Monday, Toronto's stay-at-home order will be lifted and the city will emerge from the most restrictive measures to contain the pandemic since the initial shutdown in the spring of 2020.

The shift back into Ontario's colour-coded framework means non-essential retail stores like Tap Phong will be allowed to re-open with limited capacity for the first time after they were ordered closed 104 days ago.

Officially, the city remains under Ontario's grey lockdown level, though the province has adjusted its rules to permit retail stores to open at 25 per cent capacity even under lockdown restrictions. Indoor dining, gyms, and personal care services will remain closed.

The city's business owners have responded to the news with relief, but also anxiety due to their experiences during the pandemic so far.

"Frankly, I'm not sure we should be opening," said Elana White, the owner of the gift shop Outer Layer and a board member of the Queen Street West BIA.

While White expressed concern that reopening retail stores could jeopardize Toronto's progress at containing the pandemic and potentially spark a third shutdown, she said the prospect of increased business will be too hard to resist.

"Given that we're allowed to [open], we probably don't have any choice. It's been a long, tough winter and we'd like to have our sales increase," said White, who plans to open to customers later this week.

'We want this one ... to be the last one'

Ontario's public health officials have repeatedly warned of a possible third wave of the pandemic that could trigger the return of more severe restrictions. They're worried a potential spike in cases could be driven by more contagious variants of the novel coronavirus, which threaten to spread rapidly and undermine Ontario's nascent inoculation campaign.

Ottawa's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches said on Friday that it appears a third wave in her city is imminent. 

Her counterpart in Toronto, Dr. Eileen de Villa, noted that cases of variants of concern have doubled recently, though de Villa did recommend that Toronto be moved out of a stay-at-home order and into the less severe grey lockdown level.

The most recent figures show Toronto has a weekly COVID-19 case rate of 68.3 per 100,000 residents. Ontario has stipulated that public health units must record rates of less than 40 per 100,000 before being moved in the red-control level.

The Queen Street West BIA estimates a commercial vacancy rate in its district of more than 40 per cent. (Sam Nar/CBC)

Peel Region, which is also moving into the grey lockdown level, has a weekly rate of 89.7 per 100,000.

Toronto Mayor John Tory has said the city will do everything in its power "to stop the one thing that we want to stop more than anything else, which is another lockdown later."

He expressed hope that a third shutdown can be avoided even with businesses slowly reopening.

"We want this one, as it comes to an end, to be the last one," Tory said Friday on CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

Business owners also appealed to residents to keep following public health orders, so that Toronto's economy can begin a reopening without any further setbacks.

"I would like to believe that everyone is at that point where they just want to do everything as much as possible to facilitate us opening the doors," Tran Anstee said.

"Not going back depends on each and every one of us."


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