Friday, December 04, 2020

Open letter from Ontario businesses actually does have some merit

There has been controversy about Ontario's latest COVID-l9 lockdown since the get-go. Well, of course there has - it's impossible to please all the people all the time.

In particular, there has been controversy about the closing down of "non-essential businesses", partly because of the definition of "non-essential" (just as there were arguments about that during the first wave lockdown), but also because people see big box stores like WalMart and Costco remaining open (on the grounds that they also sell food, an essential item) while small family-owned and independent stores are closed down. 

In this context, nearly 50 major Canadian retailers have issued an open letter asking the Ontario government to reconsider this policy. Corporate signatories include Canadian Tire, Indigo, IKEA, Hudson's Bay, MEC, Old Navy, PetSmart, Staples, Toys'R'Us, and many more household names. Now, normally I would just write this off as big business whining about regulations that curb their profit-making ability, and remind them that public safety always trumps economic considerations. But, the more I think about it, the more I realize that they may actually have a point in this particular case.

The letter argues that non-essential retail stores are closed even though the number of COVID cases attributed to these businesses is minimal. The letter specifically asserts that "only 0.2% to 0.9% of recent weekly cases related to outbreaks have been associated with retail environments", although I have no idea where they got those figures ("according to the Government of Ontario's own statistics", it says).

Furthermore, the letter argues, the ban has not reduced the total number of shoppers (debatable), merely forced the same number of people into fewer stores, with consequent increased health risks, and encouraged shoppers to travel outside of the lockdown areas to other jurisdictions where shops remain open, with consequent increased health risks in those areas. 

While both these points are probably logically true, they are mutually inconsistent to some extent in that, if people are travelling further afield to shop, then there can't also be the same number of people shopping in the lockdown areas, as claimed.

Be that as it may, in general terms, the arguments do have some merit, and perhaps the current government policy actually is "an ineffective policy" which is decimating the small businesses of the region unnecessarily. I'm not sure that the policy is actually "making things worse", as the letter claims, but it is probably not making things appreciably better.

The signatory companies suggest a policy of allowing non-essential businesses to open at 25% of their capacity - along with the usual measures of mandatory masks, enforced social distancing, and increased sanitation - thus putting fewer shoppers in more stores and reducing the potential for community spread, while allowing small businesses to open during the make-or-break pre-Christmas period.

I have kind of surprised myself by agreeing with all this. But this is not the Great Barrington Declaration; it is altogether more modest, reasoned and reasonable. I do know that I personally feel safer in smaller stores than bigger ones, and I have been deliberately avoiding the big supermarkets and big box stores where at all possible. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, however, when asked about this initiative, has refused to countenance the suggested changes, saying merely that "I have to listen to the health experts" and "health trumps my personal belief of doing something". Except, of course, that he has been ignoring the health experts for much of the year so far. And now suddenly he gets religion?


Hudson's Bay Company has now gone a step further, effectively taking the Ontario government to court, and demanding a judicial review of its lockdown rules in Toronto and Peel, which the company calls "unreasonable" and "unfair".


The Ontario Superior Court has dismissed HBC's application for a judicial review of the province's lockdown rules, agreeing with the province's lawyers' argument that the lockdowns are necessary to minimize health risks. 

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