reopening businesses in ontario

Backlash builds against Toronto business owners who plan to reopen in spite of lockdown

Nearly 200 small Canadian businesses have now publicly indicated that they'll be reopening their stores, salons, restaurants and other services deemed non-essential on February 11, regardless of any COVID-19 restrictions.

Called We Are All Essential, the group describes itself as a "support network" for small Canadian businesses that are currently closed, either partially or fully, by orders of their respective governments.

Founder Vladislav Sobolev told blogTO earlier this week that the campaign's webste was intended to be "something like a Yelp directory for businesses choosing to stay open despite pandemic closure orders."

Not every business involved with the campaign has chosen to be public about it. In fact, may haven't, and Sobolev says they won't appear on the site until the group's day of action on February 11.

It's easy to understand why, given the legal, financial and reputational risks of opening in defiance of government orders.

Adam Skelly, one of the group's founding members, was arrested, charged and temporarily banned from social meda back in November after opening the Etobicoke location of his Adamson Barbecue restaurant chain for three days.

While he certainly gained plenty of attention and support from people with similar views, Skelly's actions also sparked widespread backlash, alienating former customers who pledged never to patronize his otherwise popular barbecue joint again.

Skelly also transformed himself into a political figure, and not in a light that many people would consider positive — today, he is known as a prominent "anti-masker" type alongside notorious local conspiracy theory bro Chris Sky and members of Sobolev's Hugs Over Masks brigade.

Understandable as their reasons for wanting to reopen may be, given how much financial havoc forced closures have wreaked upon small businesses and communities, owners of stores participating in the We Are All Essential event now run the same risk as Skelly.

Backlash has already started against those who've indicated they're participating, both on the whole and individually.

"PSA: A bunch of... covidiots are planning on opening their shops to protest the lockdown. Here's who you know not to support and to report," wrote someone on a popular Toronto-based Facebook group this week, linking to the We Are All Essential website.

"Good list of businesses to avoid like the, uh, plague," wrote another on Twitter.

"Looks like these are the businesses I will NOT be supporting going forward," commented another still. "Someone should tell them that their actions will only extend the lockdown."

While there is also plenty of support to be found online for business owners who are choosing to reopen as part of the campaign, many critics have been slamming participants as irresponsible, anti-science kooks.

Leanne Poirier Greenfield, who owns both the The Bone House and Renegade Spirit in Toronto's Leslieville neighbourhood, takes up issue with this characterization.

"Many of us are staring down the barrel of bankruptcy, which has brought us to the point of civil disobedience. We are not 'crazy ANTI fill-in-the blank, as the mainstream media likes to call us," she told blogTO this week.

"We are mothers and fathers trying to save our livelihoods. We are entrepreneurs who built businesses from the ground up with our own blood, sweat, and tears now struggling to survive."

Greenfield explained that independent businesses like hers, which make up the backbone of many Toronto neighbourhoods, simply can't survive when limited to curbsive pickup services only.

"We are behind on credit card payments as I struggle to pay rent and payroll so we NEED to open our doors," she said, asking people who haven't been in such a situation not to making judgements.

"I am confused by big box stores being able to remain open and flourish as the throat of small business is strangled," she said. "It breaks my heart to walk down the street and see so many places for lease, so many livelihoods destroyed, families left with nothing."

Regardless of how customers and community members feel, laws are laws, and police are ready to enforce them

"We are aware of a some businesses claiming they will open against current provincial orders," said Toronto Police spokesperson Connie Osborne on Thursday when asked about the upcoming event.

"Any business that is prohibited from opening, but choses to do so, will be investigated in conjunction with partner agencies and appropriate enforcement action will be taken."

While some of the orders these business owners say they'll be defying are actually set to be lifted next week, it seems quite likely at this point that at least some lockdown measures will be extended.

Ontario Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Williams most-recently stated that we'd need to see ICU numbers drop down to at least 150 admissions in order for any loosening of restrictions. Williams also stated this week that dangerous new variants of the virus may further impact reopening plans.

Premier Doug Ford is expected to provide an update on reopening plans next week, but whatever is announced, all businesses will be expected to follow public health restrictions as ordered.

"Because of our government's decisive action in implementing the stay-at-home order, we are successfully bending the curve as new daily cases of COVID-19 have declined significantly over the past few weeks," said Ford's spokesperson, Ivana Yelich, when asked about the upcoming We Are All Essential event.

Yelich said that the province recognizes the impact public health measures have had upon small businesses, and reiterated that the government is providing up to $20,000 in grant funding to all eligible businesses, as well as making $600 million available to offset their fixed costs.

"We can't take this progress for granted," she said. "We strongly urge that these businesses adhere to public health restrictions and, as they do, take full advantage of the financial support available to them."

Lead photo by

Hector Vasquez

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