While businesses are concerned and frustrated over the province's second lockdown, those that had pivoted the first time find themselves in a better position to handle the second edition, if not the uncertainty.
"I did put substantial efforts into increasing my online presence and upping my e-commerce game. This is something all retail needs to do, but COVID sure brought it to the top of the priority list," said Terri Dawson, owner of the Green Gecko in Lyndhurst, adding: "I took advantage of the government sponsored Digital Main Street program and I am very happy with how helpful they were."
Still, it was no simple task photographing every item in a store that sells mostly one-of-a kind or small production items, uploading them, describing, numbering and pricing each item digitally; answering every inquiry, taking orders, packaging and shipping while also running the store under strict limits; locking and unlocking the door; sanitizing regularly; serving customers, and making deliveries after hours to local residents.
"It's been worth it, and it's what got me through 2020 and will get me through 2021 if things continue like this," said Dawson.
Developing and improving the e-commerce side of the business was a recurring topic with small business owners, especially with this latest shutdown.
"The good thing, this time, is that our online store has really blossomed," said Janet Campbell, owner of Mrs. McGarrigle's Fine Food Shop in Merrickville.
Before the pandemic, Mrs. McGarrigle's online store barely saw any orders. Since then Campbell has added 230 new local products to her digital store and people have begun to embrace online shopping.
The difficulty has been keeping products in stock while supply chains fall victim to COVID-19, to say nothing of shipping nightmares.
While Mrs. McGarrigle's is able to remain open through this lockdown, with stay-at-home orders in place and no relatives visiting family and Christmas now over, there isn't much traffic.
"We were grateful for all the local support; never has there been more interest in supporting local food producers," said Campbell, adding that, while her sales fell by 90 per cent in the first lockdown, local customers kept her open.
Still there is frustration with the present lockdown, and the way it was imposed.
"Lockdown is devastating for independent small business. I am furious with our government for allowing big box retail to continue to sell everything because they also sell groceries," said Dawson. "As in the first lockdown I am all in to fight against COVID spread. But I don't see how buying clothing and jewelry from Walmart is safer than at my store."
As Dawson points out, small independents don't compete on price point. Instead, she says, they provide good customer service, play a role in their communities and give back, supporting local charities. They put people before profits, said Dawson, and employ their neighbours and youth from the community.
"I compete with the big guys not on price, but on my ability to help you pick the perfect item, and know that it was produced in a way that adds to our community, not rapes it," said Dawson.
She is not alone in her frustration with this latest lockdown.
"We're frustrated at being the gatekeepers and being locked down when big box stores that haven't been good gatekeepers get to stay open. It's the small stores that have been really good at following the rules," said Alison Dunn, co-owner of Beggar's Banquet Books in Gananoque, another store with a robust online presence.
Dunn and her partner, like Dawson in Lyndhurst, and Campbell in Merrickville, were quick to install Plexiglas barriers, hand sanitizers and limit the number of people in their store from the get-go, and they never let up. They provided baskets and instructed customers not to return anything they touched to a shelf but to bring it up to the cash for sanitizing. They kept their door locked; only allowing a few masked customers into their space at any one time. But they're not deemed an essential service.
"We're concerned. When the outbreak in Gananoque happened, businesses were reporting that sales were down, some of the businesses I've spoken to have said that it will take five years to recover from the first lockdown, so we're concerned about businesses that have experienced a slowdown," said Amy Kirkland, executive director of the 1000 Islands Gananoque Chamber of Commerce.
"There are going to be closures after Christmas; merchants have been hanging on by a hope and a prayer for Christmas; the outbreak really hit hard," said Dunn.
There is no doubt that small businesses in communities across the region are taking the brunt of the lockdown.
"This is a difficult time for everybody but the reality is that small business owners are carrying a disproportionate share of the burden. My sincere hope is that we will remember their sacrifice and reward them with our patronage and our loyalty when things return to normal. Frankly, it's the least we can do if we want our communities to survive," said Tom Russell, executive director of the Thousand Islands Community Development Corporation.
As for pending government programming and supports, Russell says he has no real insight at this time, as those decisions tend to be communicated to the CDCs following official announcements from the prime minister or senior government officials.
Meanwhile, chambers of commerce are doing what they can to support businesses through workshops and information on support programs that are still available.
"We're doing a lot of business support, working with the county, and we’re better equipped this time than we were before," said Kirkland.
In the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, stores in Merrickville and Gananoque could normally rely on relatives visiting families in town to shop at their stores, but not this year.
Small store owners are particularly concerned about their employees, who are often neighbours and friends.
"My biggest concern right now is to try and keep my staff because I don't want to lose good people," said Campbell.
"If I shorten my hours, what options are there for my staff? ... It might be better for them if I just lay them off so they can access employment insurance," said Robyn Fredrickson, owner of the Village Bean in Merrickville.
Right now, Fredrickson, who never reopened her indoor seating after the first lockdown, says she's only open for her local customers.
"It's costing me to stay open, but I want to be here for customers who commute to work and like to pick up their coffee on their way out of town," said Fredrickson.
She has been looking into the programs available and says that employees who were able to access CERB, still have an open claim and should be able to get employment insurance through this second lockdown.
With the announcement of this latest lockdown, there was mention of support for businesses although it's not yet clear what form that will take or when it will be announced, much less take effect.
"We've heard that they there will be a $20,000 grant if your sales came down by 20 per cent, and that money would come in handy and provide relief, but there has been no formal announcement yet, but as soon as we hear anything we'll contact our businesses," said Kirkland.
It's only the first week of lockdown and it's coming right after Christmas, when small retail that's not as dependent on Boxing Day sales often sees a slowdown if not a complete standstill.
"Better to have lockdown in January or February than June," said Fredrickson.
Still the uncertainty of the coming year is weighing heavily on area businesses.
"I'm concerned as a Chamber that people are going to permanently close their doors, but I think now more than ever people need to be innovative in how they run their business in this uncertain time, and it's not easy," said Kirkland.
Heddy Sorour, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brockville Recorder and Times