Manitoba businesses are in a jam. Or rather, as many owners and commerce leaders say, they've been put in that 'sticky situation' by the provincial government.
As of Saturday, masks will no longer be required within any indoor settings. And patrons at restaurants, bars, hair salons, retail stores, museums or gyms will no longer be mandated to belong to the same household nor be checked for their vaccination status.
It's a rapid change to COVID-19 protocols that is forcing many businesses to come up with their own rules for their workers' safety and the overall community.
On top of that, none of the leadership among Manitoba's business community knows who was consulted before Premier Brian Pallister announced the economic reopening plans on Tuesday — that chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said will prevent the "continued shutting down of our economy and our society," which he added is "not realistic in the long term."
"It came as a pretty big surprise to us," Chuck Davidson, president of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, told the Free Press Wednesday. "We'd been asking for capacity limits to increase, so that's good news, but the mask mandate being lifted is quite problematic. I definitely didn't think the government would go that far in their reopening plans at this point in time."
Davidson said it dampens consumer confidence, which has already eroded during the pandemic, if restrictions are lifted so quickly. "Especially with masks, I don't think many customers feel comfortable to take them off altogether," he said.
The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce is recommending its members continue enforcing the use of masks. Downtown Winnipeg BIZ is doing the same, while providing support to any storefronts that are experiencing trouble with requiring masks from their customers.
But Shaun Jeffrey, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant & Foodservices Association, said it's not that easy.
"It's the kind of thing where you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't," Jeffrey said. "You have to keep your staff safe, so it is your legal right to enforce masking for that reason. But if you don't, even if you're actually following what the rules will now say, you're risking a potential loss of business."
The Free Press spoke to four restaurant owners who won't be requiring masks for their customers and are figuring out the protocols for their workers. None of them wanted to be interviewed or named on the record out of fear of retaliation.
"You have to keep your staff safe, so it is your legal right to enforce masking for that reason. But if you don't, even if you're actually following what the rules will now say, you're risking a potential loss of business." ‐ Shaun Jeffrey, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant & Foodservices Association
"Unfortunately, it's a luxury for people that can say we're still enforcing masks or asking for vaccination status," Jeffrey said. "The fact is, with so many ups and downs, and after the debt from months of being closed, restaurants and bars can't afford to turn anyone away. It's just yet another tough, sticky situation handed down by the government."
Jonathan Alward, Manitoba director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said he's seen many people flock online with "big opinions on social media criticizing both sides of this mask debate."
"I think what we have to understand, as customers going to these businesses, especially if they're smaller and local ones, that you need to respect the difficulty with making their decision," Alward said. "If you're not going to support them, that's your prerogative. But we shouldn't need to broadcast that or shame them, because they're only going by the rules that the province has given them."
At Élan Hair Studio on Sherbrook Street, masks will still be mandated. "I think this is something our clients will understand because we do work so physically close to them," said Nikki Tardi, the salon's manager on Wednesday.
"Of course, we were incredibly worried before we made this decision though," Tardi added. "Because at the end of the day, masks have become such a polarizing thing and people are so quick to send hate."
The same goes for the Manitoba Museum, where chief executive officer Dorota Blumczyńska said she took the step to continue with mask requirements out of caution for the many unvaccinated kids that visit their premises.
Live music venue Park Theatre is taking it one step further by also requiring proof of vaccination and a government-issued identification.
Craft brewery Stone Angel on Pembina Highway is doing the same. "For us businesspeople, it's not the first time we've gone above and beyond what the province wants while we try to interpret their rules," said Paul Clerkin, one of the brewery's owners.
"The thing is, we've got skin in the game and we're here to take care of people while taking care of our staff. I'm not sure why or where the government's decision came from, but I can tell you we're not sitting at an office chair making these calls," Clerkin added. "We're just here to make sure everyone's comfortable, while keeping them safe."
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press.