Retailers in Manitoba are finding new loopholes within mandated public-health orders to peddle non-essential products, just in time for the busy holiday sales this weekend.
But speaking to reporters Friday, chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the province doesn’t want to penalize large businesses for exploiting apertures in prescribed restrictions just yet — even if they are directly contravening them by pushing merchandise out the door through new ways such as drive-thru services.
It’s a repeat of what happened only a week ago, epidemiologists and commerce stakeholders told the Free Press, when code-red restrictions were heightened to prohibit the in-person sale of non-essential items to begin with.
This time, however, they said the provincial government has had enough time to act and make appropriate changes before mass turnouts at retailers.
“We’re acting on good faith,” said Roussin, as bargain-loving Winnipeggers didn’t let pandemic restrictions keep them from their Black Friday shopping missions. “We’re not going to be issuing fines on this right now.”
News of in-person bargains travelled quickly Thursday and overnight, with hordes of shoppers lining up Friday morning, as early as 5 a.m. Parking lots were also quick to fill up with cars chock full of customers hoping to purchase discounted non-essential items, including electronics, toys, jewelry, makeup and clothing.
At Walmart, a new drive-thru service has been introduced, with individual locations either designating specific lanes for cars or asking people to park anywhere before a salesperson approaches them. Without requiring any advance notice or appointments, customers were able to place orders with a sales associate and pick between several items before paying for them with credit and debit cards or cash.
“It’s like I’m legit shopping for my stuff the way I would inside the store just by being outside,” said Gina Torros, a Winnipegger who waited in advance to get into the drive-thru outside the Empress Street Walmart to buy a new TV.
“It’s really cool, kinda like the pandemic doesn’t really affect this type of full shopping experience.”
Asked whether Walmart’s new services are allowed under current public-health rules for the province, Roussin said it is “completely against the spirit of the orders.”
He said only remote purchasing of non-essential items (through curbside pickup or delivery) is permitted. “Just because we are not fining them doesn’t change our overall message,” added Roussin.
Walmart declined to comment further on how it will adapt its new drive-thru services to be applicable under provincial restrictions. A spokesperson said the retailer, however, plans on continuing drive-thrus in Manitoba until at least Dec. 13, with discounted flyer items open to customers every Friday, Saturday and Sunday leading up to it.
Meanwhile, customers at the Real Canadian Superstore and Costco have been sent online flyers with discounts for in-person sales — resulting in plenty of traffic lined up at several of their parking lots in the city on Friday.
Martin Groleau, vice-president of marketing at Costco Canada, told the Free Press those lineups are “not necessarily our fault.”
“Yes, we’re offering discounts for Black Friday, but they’re not being offered in Manitoba stores,” said Groleau, who is also the director of membership at the company. “We are certainly not selling non-essential items either, please know that.”
The provincial government said a Costco on McGillivray Boulevard was handed a $5,000 fine for selling non-essential items to customers, in a news release on Friday. Groleau said he did not want to comment on that, and that he “still stands beside” his statement.
At Manitoba Liquor Mart locations, “hot buy” discount programs also caused some lineups. But a spokesperson said that wasn’t necessarily because of Black Friday specials.
“We are not running any Black Friday specials — any and all discounts in our stores are the same as you would find any day or week of the year,” said Andrea Kowal, director of public affairs at Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries, in a statement.
“The only advertising campaign we are doing right now... is actually to discourage busy stores — it encourages customers to not shop at peak times and think about using home delivery.”
Cynthia Carr, an epidemiologist and health policy expert based in Winnipeg, said “all of this put together could easily cause COVID-19 transmissions.
“While I can’t speak to exactly the socio-economic or health reasons which Dr. Roussin is thinking of,” she said in an interview, “I can certainly say there’s already enough ways for people to access purchasing items if they need to — and maybe, a stern order would help preventing businesses from finding such loopholes.”
“It certainly is much safer just to stop this from happening altogether.”
Chuck Davidson, president of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, said public health should “move beyond messaging” for business owners and allow for restrictions, instead of “continuously telling them what to do without rules to govern it.”
“If you want to prevent it, you should,” he said. “But I don’t think you can blame businesses for finding creative ways to survive during this time until you’re going to. It’s the only time of the year they can be making up their pandemic losses.”
Roussin said Friday the onus is on customers flocking to stores, however.
“There are two sides to this — it’s a supply and a demand,” he said. “But, no matter what these stores have set up, there shouldn’t be a demand. Manitobans should be staying home.
“They should be responsible for going shopping for non-essentials when that is not our messaging.”
Temur Durrani, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press