Small businesses turn to stunts as desperation mounts amid Ont. COVID-19 lockdown

TORONTO — Storefronts along a bustling neighbourhood in Toronto's west end were papered over with mock "for lease" signs Tuesday as a nearby suburban barbecue joint threw open its doors in defiance of pandemic restrictions — a sign of the dramatic measures small businesses are resorting to amid renewed provincial lockdown measures to combat growing COVID-19 cases.

"These businesses are trying to cut through the clutter of all the small business stories and catch your attention," said Joanne McNeish, a Ryerson University professor specializing in marketing.

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The stakes are high. With the holiday season here, many are seeing their busiest time of year become their slowest, and if they can't recover quickly they'll face financial ruin.

The provincial government ordered Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region into lockdown on Nov. 23, limiting non-essential retailers to curbside pickup and online sales. Only essential businesses such as grocers and pharmacies are open to in-person shopping for the next 28 days, and store capacity is limited to 50 per cent. Other municipalities across Canada are also tightening restrictions amid rising COVID-19 case counts.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business estimated earlier in the year that 160,000 businesses across the country may permanently close due to COVID-19. It now believes that number could climb all the way to 225,000 if restrictions persist.

That is part of why members of the Roncesvalles Village Business Improvement Area met up at 4 a.m. local time on Tuesday to wrap at least 50 stores in brown paper marked with "for lease" messages.

The campaign aims to encourage the support of local small businesses over online retail giant Amazon.com or big box stores such as Costco and Walmart, which are not subject to the same lockdown restrictions.

Adam Langley, the BIA vice-chair, said he noticed shoppers looking agog at the storefronts and at least one local seemed heartbroken.

"She had her hand on her chest, asking me, 'Oh my God. Is this true?" he said. "There were a lot of people genuinely concerned."

The BIA felt it had to make such a dramatic statement with the window coverings because it wants to do whatever it can to quell the hurt small businesses have been feeling.

They have had to shift operations online, scramble to keep up with constantly changing restrictions, ask landlords for rent relief and even take on debt.

The windows are a conversation starter to get people talking about how they can help, Langley said.

In the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, another business was drawing attention with a more radical move that McNeish said likely won't pay off.

Adamson Barbecue decided to ignore recently imposed lockdown measures and open its doors for indoor dining.

"This is a risky move and you guys gave me the gas to do this," owner Adam Skelly told customers in an Instagram video he posted the evening before opening.

In the video, he complained that the government's rationale for shutting down indoor restaurant dining was flawed and "reeks of corruption," saying opening was his way of defending freedom.

The City of Toronto closed the restaurant Tuesday afternoon because it said the owner was providing both indoor and outdoor dine-in service with many patrons not wearing masks or practicing physical distancing.

The city said it was would be investigating the restaurant for compliance with business licensing, zoning, public health and building and fire codes.

"I wish they would just follow the rules," Ontario Premier Doug Ford said in a news conference.

"I can't get angry at any business person because they are hurting right now, they are struggling and they are doing everything they can to stay afloat, but if we let everyone open, we are going to be in worse shape."

McNeish chalked it up as a "bad strategy" and said it will only attract people who love a good protest. It could also convince loyal customers who support public health measures to stay away long after COVID-19 dissipates.

Instead, she said companies should be using more clever stunts like the Roncesvalles BIA's, but remember to follow them up with information about how the public can help.

Once something has been done, she said following suit isn't always wise.

"If 100 people do something, that first five to 10 are going to have some real success with it, but everyone else, maybe not."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2020.

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