By Jenna Cocullo, Local Journalism Initiative
Chatham-Kent’s small businesses can do it better than the box stores, according to local owners who want to keep their doors open in the event of the third province-wide lockdown.
Chatham-Kent’s COVID-19 cases had declined recently, allowing the city to reopen in the Orange Zone, however, more infectious variants of the virus have Ontario health experts warning of a looming third lockdown.
“I refuse to participate. If there is a third lockdown, they can come take my keys away,” said Shirley Brennan, owner of Simply Shoes in Chatham. “They can’t keep asking us to go further into debt.”
The business owners support the lockdown measures to keep people safe, but do not agree that closing small businesses, which see at most 10 people in their store at once, is an effective means of stopping the spread.
“The first lockdown, fine. But during (the second lockdown), we knew how to better keep people safe,” said Cindy Smith, owner of The Loft Fashion and Mastectomy Boutique in Chatham.
“So it’s ridiculous and frustrating because as small businesses we can do a lot more to keep us and our customers safe. We also have one staff on at a time, some places have two, so there is barely any overlap.”
Brennan said it takes her less than 15 minutes to sanitize her whole store after every single customer, and can ensure everyone entering is taking the proper safety precautions, something which she feels big box stores such as Wal-Mart cannot do.
“We also provide one-on-one service so we can get people out a lot quicker,” Brennan said.
Becky Haines, who owns Oasis Comics in Wallaceburg, said she could not even step into the local Wal-Mart during the second lockdown, knowing they also sell games and toys without restrictions.
“If they need to close us, fine, but then they should bar big box stores from selling non-essential items.”
Haines and her husband thought about calling it quits at the onset of the pandemic. Right before the pandemic was declared, the municipality’s Economic Development department had funded Oasis Comics through a sponsorship, so they could head to the Toronto ComicCon. As a result, Haines bought a lot of material that would normally not sell at a local level.
Brennan finds herself in a similar situation after ordering seasonal stock which will now be a challenge to get rid of.
“And we didn’t qualify for (senior government funding). We were either too small or did too much of something, or didn’t meet the cut off dates for their criteria,” Haines said. “It is a lot of small businesses to undertake and we can’t stay open because the fines alone, and the bad reputation that would come with it, would destroy us. So I had it in my mind to say, ‘Screw it.’”
Luckily the independent businesses are surviving through creative selling techniques and the support of their loyal customers.
Smith was allowed to stay open for her mastectomy clients and implemented some fun ways to shop for the remainder of her customers.
“Curbside was fun for some. People would leave us their credit card and take as many pieces as home as they wanted to try on. I took a few people personal shopping by Facetiming them around the store,” she said.
Haines meanwhile, got creative with online auctions but said nothing can replace the foot traffic that comes into stores, especially with the nice spring months approaching as people wander the downtown core. However, she is now thinking about adding some food productions into her shop so she can be considered an essential service.
Despite the province’s warning of a third wave, Chatham-Kent’s medical officer of health, Dr. David Colby, is remaining much more optimistic.
“With regard to the levels of restrictions that we have, the variants of concern that are more transmissible has everybody worried about another wave coming. I’m really hoping that if we get rocking through this vaccination phase that will be forestalled, but we’ll just have to play it by ear,” he said.
Colby said as of late last week, more than 7,000 locals had been vaccinated with their first doses of COVID-19. That is roughly five times more people vaccinated than people that have tested positive for COVID-19 in Chatham-Kent.
“But once everybody is vaccinated that will be such a game changer,” he added. “I will state categorically that the more success that our vaccination program is able to achieve and the faster that happens, the less likely a third wave will occur at all. Or maybe it will just be much smaller and more manageable bump.”
Brennan said she is remaining positive during the Orange Zone reopening, but fears that a third lockdown will send many local businesses under.
“I’m not working for the government, I am trying to be self employed,” she said. “If they keep shutting us down, a lot of people will just walk away. And once we’re gone, we don’t come back.”