Mounting pressure from business groups could force the province to close loopholes in current pandemic restrictions and prohibit the sale of non-essential items in large retailers as early as this weekend, the Free Press has learned.
The changes would include physically preventing access to non-essential goods — such as clothes, electronics, books, flowers, accessories and other recreational items — banned from being sold to customers in-store, or asking retailers to deny their sale at the checkouts.
Government sources and commerce stakeholders privy to internal deliberations say, however, it all hinges on whether Premier Brian Pallister will agree with Manitoba's chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin about those changes being necessary.
While the premier publicly admonished big box stores for "abusing rules to gain business advantage" over smaller stores by peddling non-essential items Tuesday, members of the Tory cabinet and government staff told the Free Press on condition of anonymity that internally, Pallister is hesitant to approve orders that would prevent this from happening.
"What we're suggesting is certainly not to have business flout any rules." – Loren Remillard, Winnipeg chamber president
Sources said Pallister is unsure if the upgraded restrictions would work logistically across the province.
Still, they added in separate interviews, that the premier is "leaning towards the side of caution" and will likely allow the upgrade if public health "really thinks they are worth it."
But as different government departments bide their time in coming towards a consensus, long lines of customers and a multitude of cars in parking lots continue to be seen at larger stores like Walmart, Costco, IKEA and the Real Canadian Superstore, as smaller businesses are being forced to shut down indefinitely and resort to meagre sales from curbside pick-up and delivery.
Some stores — like Walmart and IKEA — have even started distributing flyers online and to residences about in-store sales for Black Friday. A Facebook advertisement from Superstore also shows the sale of "Non-essential Essentials" in the lead up to the holidays for party hats, streamers and piñatas.
The lack of clarity within current health orders that has created a loophole to allow this was the subject of a conference call on Monday evening between business leaders and cabinet members, led by the Minister of Economic Development and Training Ralph Eichler.
At the meeting, members from the Retail Council of Canada, Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Economic Development Winnipeg, and both Manitoba and Winnipeg Chambers of Commerce brought up concerns about how the mandated shut-down rules are easily confusing.
Under the rules, only businesses that sell "food or household consumer goods necessary for the safety, sanitation or operation of residences and businesses, such as personal hygiene items, cleaning supplies, baby and child care products, hardware and household appliances" can continue to operate.
In other words, if a retailer falls under that category, it can continue to operate and also sell any products that are not essential, such as books, flowers or clothes. However, if an outlet only sells those "non-essential" products, it should be closed.
"What we're suggesting is certainly not to have business flout any rules," said Loren Remillard, Winnipeg chamber president, who was present on the call. "We want to flatten the curve, we just also want to make sure it can be flattened while being fair across the board."
CFIB Prairies director Jonathan Alward agreed. "The problem is also that we're seeing overcrowding at mostly the bigger stores that can even sell products that are non-essential," he said. "It's all just a bit muddy."
That meeting comes on the heels of Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman urging the premier to restrict businesses still open to only sell essential items and services. "We have witnessed a significant number of residents attending large commercial establishments, in-person, to purchase non-essential goods and services," he wrote in a letter dated Monday, obtained by the Free Press. "Obviously, this raises serious concerns that community transmission of COVID-19 is not being mitigated as much as possible."
"This isn’t the time for having a large, in–person sale for non–essential goods or services." – Dr. Brent Roussin
Meantime, the heads of six leading business associations, including those that attended the meeting, have also co-signed an open letter to the premier and public health, sounding the alarm for clear and consistent guidelines on the province's COVID-19 response. They are asking officials to provide as much detail as possible, and to avoid blanketing approaches while supporting small-sector businesses.
Speaking to reporters at separate press briefings Tuesday, Pallister and Roussin said they are still mulling the changes and that "it's under consideration" — both stopping short from mentioning when upgraded restrictions would be rolled out.
Roussin said, however, "Manitobans should not have to be ordered to buy into the spirit of restrictions, they should do it anyway."
"This isn’t the time for having a large, in-person sale for non-essential goods or services," he said, admitting that devising orders to cover all sizes of stores has been a challenge.
"We have people dying every day. We have our health-care workers telling us that they’re reaching their limits. We need all Manitobans, including businesses, to do their part. This is a critical juncture for us."
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for this Free Press reporting position comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.