The provincial government is reconsidering the regulation of thousands of items sold in Manitoba stores as "essential" or "non-essential," but it comes thousands of dollars too late for some local businesses.
Steinbach businesses including Great Canadian Dollar Store, Dollarama, and Superstore have been fined $5,000 for failing to comply with health orders.
But following orders and their technicalities isn’t straightforward, Travis Neufeld, owner of Great Canadian Dollar Store on Main Street in Steinbach, said.
Great Canadian Dollar Stores in Steinbach and Niverville have been subject to 17 inspections from various provincial inspectors from six provincial agencies, Neufeld said. The dollar store has failed two inspections.
Some of the violations, Neufeld said, include "non-essential" paperclips sold in the stationery area of a store; a rope not going far enough to cover a certain area of "non-essential" items; failing to cover up a "non-essential" rubber mat; and signage not being large enough.
"We’ve done our best in all our stores," Neufeld said. The stores continue to sell via curbside pickup, and problems can arise when not blocking off items to inspectors’ satisfaction.
Some customers are allowed to buy certain items in-store, but if they want to buy others, they must wait outside, sometimes in the cold, and phone in and wait to have them delivered. Neufeld said such situations lead to confusion for customers.
Such situations can also lead to an increased number of contacts since different staff may be responsible for in-store and curbside purchases, despite increased contacts being something Neufeld thought health authorities wanted to avoid.
"Sometimes managers don’t know what to tell people," Neufeld said.
Neufeld said individual inspectors aren’t consistent and interpret the rules differently. There has been disagreement among inspectors to what degree Valentine’s items count as seasonal, which are permitted.
The rules also don’t have a dispute mechanism apart from court, Neufeld said, which he intends to pursue. Neufeld interprets the "essential list" as guidelines because the list says it is "intended to provide guidance to retail businesses" and that the list "is for guidance purposes only."
But as he sees it, in practice, the rules are "zero tolerance policy," and tickets he’s familiar with aren’t more specific than stating "fail to comply with a public health order."
He’s also noticed box stores seem to be allowed to sell items in stores that he can’t.
Neufeld appealed to the fact that jobs are a means by which employers and employees fund the healthcare system.
"We are trying everything we can to keep our doors open so that our employees can collect their paycheques and support small businesses from succeeding in that same goal," Neufeld said, adding Premier Brian Pallister has made doing business difficult.
The rules around seasonal items was also a problem for Dollarama in Steinbach, for which the store was fined. According to a statement, the rule violation was quickly fixed.
"Dollarama is committed to complying with Manitoba’s evolving public health orders regarding the sale of non-essential goods, as we continue to provide Manitobans with access to affordable, everyday products in these difficult circumstances."
On Tuesday, the provincial government announced it was considering modest changes to the health orders to "balance the needs of the healthcare system and the economy," according to a statement.
The elimination of the essential items list was under consideration. The current public health orders, as of publication time, end on Friday, Jan. 22.