New COVID restrictions unfairly target small businesses, some operators say

·5 min read

Bre Schabert sighs with frustration as she walks through her empty fitness studio in central Edmonton.

Schabert, the owner of Hive Fit Co, is prohibited from operating for two weeks, as Alberta imposes new restrictions on businesses in the hopes of blunting a spike in COVID-19 cases.

"We've been doing honestly whatever it takes to make things work and pay our bills," Schabert said in an interview Friday as the restrictions came into force.

"If it doesn't make a difference, then it'll be kind of hard to swallow that we're closing for two weeks or potentially longer. I have the feeling that it's going to be longer."

Schabert is not alone in her frustrations. Many Edmonton businesses are adapting to the new measures, which come after months marked by temporary closures, a new host of health rules and growing uncertainty about the future.

Indoor group sports and fitness classes in major centres will have to stop for a two-week period to try to slow a soaring rate of COVID-19 cases in the province.

The restrictions were announced Thursday by Premier Jason Kenney and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health.

Larger gyms are allowed to remain open but there are new limitations. All group fitness classes are banned.

The restrictions apply to Edmonton, Calgary, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, Fort McMurray and Red Deer.

The province is also making bars, lounges and pubs stop serving alcohol by 10 p.m. and close at 11 p.m. in areas of the province under enhanced watches. Kenney also urged Albertans Thursday not to have social gatherings in their homes.

Schabert said the new health measures are unfairly targeting small businesses like hers.

'We're alone in this'

She said she understands that restrictions may be needed to slow down the spread — as Alberta reaches a record 8,305 active cases of COVID-19 — but she wonders whether the measures will be effective.

"We're not allowed to be open, but the bigger gyms are," she said. "As a small business owner, if we were all in this together and it was more of a two-week lockdown for everyone, I could understand it more.

"But it does feel very like, I don't know, that we're alone in this."

Schabert said her studio, which offers classes in cycling, rowing, and yoga, has done everything it takes to operate safely, cutting maximum class sizes down from around 100 to 20.

Clients are carefully screened when they arrive and must stay 10 feet apart during classes. Masks are mandatory. Equipment is sanitized after each use.

Schabert has held hundreds of classes with no transmission.

The business recently moved to a new location. Schabert was set to host a grand re-opening celebration next week.

Instead, she's been left to wonder how long her business can survive the unpredictability of the pandemic.

"The new space was kind of like our silver lining or the light at the end of the tunnel," she said. "Everyone was so excited. And then the restrictions came yesterday.

"This industry and all these small businesses are just being hit so hard."

The province reported 860 new cases on Thursday, and now has a record 8,305 active cases.

Ten new deaths were reported Thursday — the highest daily number of COVID-19 deaths reported since the start of the pandemic.

Alberta now has 225 COVID-19 patients in hospital with 51 in intensive care, also a new record.

With case numbers now straining front-line healthcare, Kenney said the province can "no longer afford to wait" to clamp down.

"COVID is starting to win, and we cannot let that happen," he said Thursday.

'Targeted attack'

Jen Mills, the owner of Hyperflex Dance Studio in south Edmonton, said she's angry about the new regulations.

She said she doesn't understand why a small studio like hers can't continue to operate safely.

Mills describes the measures as a "targeted attack" on small businesses. For months, her studio has followed health protocols to the letter, she said.

"I feel like if I can go to West Edmonton Mall and go to the water park and do my Christmas shopping, I should be able to have a cohort of dance class with less than 15 kids socially distanced.

"The solution of this madness should not fall on our backs and the backs of our students."

Travis McEwan/CBC
Travis McEwan/CBC

Bars have been unfairly punished by the new regulations, said Jordan Beatty, general manager of the Sherlock Holmes pub in downtown Edmonton.

Beatty said he can't understand why bars and restaurants are facing new restrictions.

"We've got plexiglass screens everywhere. We've got more hand sanitizer, I think, than we have alcohol in the building some days," he said.

Our industry, sadly, is an easy target because it's the bar business. -Jordan Beatty

"We're doing our due diligence every day. And still we're going to end up with some new curfew."

According to an update from the provincial health officials this week, less than one per cent of virus transmission with a confirmed source happens in a bar or restaurant.

More than 40 per cent of cases in the province currently come from an unknown source.

Beatty said his patrons may be safer in the bar than they are at home.

"Our industry, sadly, is an easy target because it's the bar business," he said. "You know, the thought is, people have a few drinks and then they're hugging and kissing. And that could be happening. But it's not happening here."

He said his sales revenues have been cut in half since the pandemic hit in the spring.

The financial impact of unpredictable regulatory changes in the seven months since the pandemic hit have been crippling, Beatty said. He fears regulations on business will only become more strict as the province braces for a long winter and a second wave.

"We really don't want another shutdown," he said.

"It's just sad. I know lots of places that have closed and will never open again and we don't want to be on that list."