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Hundreds of Winnipeggers lined up outside multiple retailers across the city, with one shopper bellowing triumphantly: "It doesn’t even feel like a pandemic anymore — it’s Boxing Day 2.0!"

As the province eased public-health orders to allow the sale of non-essential items this weekend, parking lots filled up quickly Saturday morning.

Shoppers didn’t let the biting snow showers or even the mandated 25-per-cent capacity limits stop them from waiting outside storefronts for hours on end, before they could get in. Malls remained busy well into the evening, with larger outlets allowing up to 250 people at a time.

"Honestly," Darrien Drewyer told the Free Press, as he queued up outside the Winnipeg IKEA with his young son to pick up a new chair, "I’ve been waiting for this for like months now."

Drewyer — like all of Manitoba — hasn’t been able to shop for anything but groceries, pharmaceuticals or other essentials since mid-November, when the province enforced strict Code Red measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.

At Polo Park, a security guard said he'd never seen this many cars stacked across the space in tight rows in the many years he's worked at the mall. "It's madness," he said.

"We couldn’t do a lot of Christmas shopping or even Boxing Day or Black Friday properly," said Nicole Julien, waiting outside the Grant Park Winners outlet.

"I guess this is our chance now because the government finally said you can do it," chimed in Julien’s boyfriend Henry Siloam, who wanted to purchase a pair of T-shirts he saw at a special in-store discount.

While most other large retailers, such as Costco, Toys"R"Us, Best Buy and Sport Chek were also chock full of customers, independent and small stores did not see the same level of foot traffic.

Just a few steps next to the busy Winners outlet in Grant Park Shopping Centre, which touts up to 70 different storefronts, Northern Reflections and other such outlets appeared barren.

Used DVD store Entertainment Exchange was relatively occupied with customers, however. At one point Saturday afternoon, at least 12 people were waiting to enter, while several others were already glancing over the CDs inside.

"I'm sure the larger businesses are extremely happy with this," said Jonathan Alward, Manitoba director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. "But I just wish people would understand that it might actually be safer and even quicker to go support a small business instead of going off to an IKEA instantly."

Alward hopes, "once people have gotten things out of their system in the following days," retailers could look calmer. He thinks a lot of it comes from having more than two months of pent-up cabin fever since restrictions were implemented.

According to the newly relaxed public-health orders, all businesses are allowed to reopen and sell anything they'd like, if they're enforcing strict capacity limits, physical distancing guidelines and mask policies. Restrictions have not been eased for northern Manitoba communities.

The new rules have effectively closed all loopholes that emerged from a repeatedly changed provincial list of "essential" items, which advocates and business owners have argued impacted independent companies more than big-box stores. Smaller shops relied far more on curbside pickups, delivery and online sales — without necessarily having the infrastructure to match larger chains.

Announcing the measures Thursday, chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the new rules are meant to "allow increased personal connections, support the well-being of Manitobans… and allow struggling small businesses to get a chance at opening."

"It all depends on Manitobans," said Roussin of the current orders that will last at least three weeks. "If we start seeing transmission of COVID-19 again, we’re not going to be able to further reopen."

Looking at the lineups across the provincial capital on the first day of reopenings, Lisa Malbranck of Diamond Gallery isn't sure if that messaging has come across for Manitobans.

"You know, they've talked so much about this 'spirit' of the orders," she said Saturday. "To me this doesn't really seem like the spirit of the order when you're running off and flocking so quickly to the bigger stores."

At her own store, Malbranck did not see any lineups. Save for the occasional walk-in customers, most people came in after they'd already booked an appointment.

"At the end of the day," she said, "I just want our community to come together and support the ones these orders are really there for, as we return to some sense of normal again."

Twitter: @temurdur

Temur Durrani

Temur Durrani

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.

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