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Essential business distinction leaves some in Peel, Toronto without options

TORONTO — Christmas decorations, clothes and kitchenware are visible from the front window of National Thrift on Toronto's Keele Street, but people who stop by are greeted with a sign on the door that says the store is closed due to Covid-19 restrict
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TORONTO — Christmas decorations, clothes and kitchenware are visible from the front window of National Thrift on Toronto's Keele Street, but people who stop by are greeted with a sign on the door that says the store is closed due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Non-essential businesses in Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region have been ordered by the province to close until the week of Christmas, in an effort to suppress surging COVID-19 infections.

While grocery, hardware stores and other department chains remain open for in-person sales, shoppers and business owners say the new restrictions have made it harder for people with less disposable income to get by.

Vanessa Barra peered into the dark front window of National Thrift on Wednesday afternoon. She said she recently moved to Ontario and was looking for some essentials like kitchenware.

“When I moved here, I didn’t take a lot of stuff with me,” Barra said from the sidewalk outside.

“With the lockdown it’s kind of hard to find a job and I’m looking for something cheap I can use. I think this kind of place has that.”

At a nearby Value Village, flanked by open retailers including Metro and Shoppers Drug Mart, more than a dozen people approached the locked doors, some looking for second-hand clothes, others for games to pass the time while stuck at home.

Municipal and provincial officials have encouraged residents to support local businesses during the four-week lockdown by ordering online or using curbside pickup.

For National Thrift, which has three locations in Toronto, cataloguing thousands of unique donated items online would be “literally impossible to do,” said operations manager Jake Davis.

It's left customers who rely on lower prices to buy clothes for their families, as well as kitchen goods and other essentials, in a bind.

“Their dollar does stretch a little bit further than going to regular retail,” Davis said, adding that clothing should be considered a necessity, especially with kids still attending school in Ontario’s locked-down zones.

The timing may also hurt families ahead of the holiday season, he said. National Thrift stores sell second-hand toys that have been cleaned up to look like new, so families who can afford gifts for their kids if brand-new is outside their price range.

“It is very, very unfortunate,” Davis said. “I think the safety of everyone is at the forefront of everyone's mind. But in terms of closing, it does hurt a lot.”

Pegasus Thrift in east Toronto also shut down its in-person sales this week. Profits from the second-hand shop fund the charitable activities of the Pegasus Community Project, which runs day programs for adults with developmental disabilities, some of whom volunteer at the store.

The leadup to Christmas is often a busy time for sales among shoppers who rely on lower prices, or those who are looking for unique finds, said Paula Murphy, executive director of the non-profit.

She said the shutdown will affect sales and it's disrupted the routines and social connections for participants in Pegasus' social programs, who were already isolated during the spring lockdown.

“It's devastating to the people we support, it's devastating to the families, it's devastating to my staff,” Murphy said of the closure this week.

Other social enterprises have had to pivot as Peel and Toronto weather measures aimed at reversing increasingly dire COVID-19 case counts. St. Joseph’s Cathedral in downtown Toronto wrote on social media this week that its drop-in hot meal service is now takeout only due to the restrictions.

The provincial department of health did not directly answer whether thrift stores are considered non-essential during the lockdown phase of Ontario’s COVID-19 response framework.

A statement from the Ministry of Health said individual businesses “should consult their legal counsel to determine how the lockdown regulation … applies to their specific business.”

It also pointed to relief funds available to support businesses.

“To be clear, moving regions into a lockdown is not a measure this government takes lightly,” the statement said. “However, as we have seen around the world, lockdowns are a difficult but necessary step to stop the spread, safeguard the key services we rely on and protect our health system capacity.”

Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore locations, which sell used furniture and other home goods at reduced prices, have remained open in the Greater Toronto Area and Peel Region during the lockdown stage because of the hardware component of their catalog.

Jim Waechter, who directs the ReStore Success and Product Support program for Habitat for Humanity Canada, said the stores have had to pivot to more online sales, curbside pickup and delivery since the pandemic began.

He said it's been a worthwhile shift to continue offering sustainable, affordable options to people during a difficult time.

“We're proud of that role that we play in our local communities,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2020.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press