Montreal businesses deal with uncertainty as shutdown looms

·3 min read

The Christmas season is usually the busiest time of year for hairstylist Nancy Falaise. People have places to go, people to see, and they want to look their best.

The day after the Legault government announced it was walking back plans to allow private gatherings for Christmas, 10 clients cancelled their appointments. But now that her salon, like all other businesses deemed non-essential, must close as of Dec. 25, people are rushing to get their hair done.

"There's only so [many] haircuts we can do in one day. So it's been hectic, to say the least," she told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

Faced with a rising number of hospitalizations and daily cases, the Quebec government announced Tuesday that most retailers will be shut down between Dec. 25 and Jan. 11 in a bid to slow the virus's spread over the holiday period.

Falaise spent $8,000 to ensure she could safely reopen her business this spring, then had a busy summer and a not-so-busy fall.

So, while she is happy her salon can at least stay open until Christmas Day, her big fear is that the shutdown will last longer than currently advertised.

"If this extends again for months and months, like it is right now for restaurants, I don't know," she said.

"It's a scary, scary time."

Premier François Legault has said the government chose to wait until Christmas to close non-essential businesses to give people time to finish their shopping. The province has already limited the number of people allowed in stores.

Dr. Mylène Drouin, Montreal's public health director, said closing stores will have a small impact, but the holiday break is what will likely make the biggest difference.

In the Montreal region, most people are coming into contact with the virus at school and in their workplace. Since schooling in person is finished for this calendar year, and employees are being encouraged to work remotely as of Friday, that should drastically reduce the number of contacts people have.

Worried about businesses, employees

Stéphane Drouin, head of the Quebec retail council, said it's good news that businesses will be allowed to stay open until Christmas.

Retail store owners, he said, are worried for their businesses but also for their employees.

He said some employers will keep a core group of employees on the payroll and have them carry out tasks in the stores to get ready for an eventual reopening, for example. But others will have to lay off their staff.

Boxing Day and post-Christmas sales allow retailers to empty their inventory, bring in cash flow to get through the slower winter period and pay for the inventory that's coming for the spring season.

So if the reopening date remains Jan. 11, that is enough time for businesses to catch up.

"I don't think retailers will lose too many of the sales because consumers will be eager to go back to the stores and take advantage of ... the Boxing Day deals."

But if it lasts longer, he said, that's when things may get complicated.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

François Vincent, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business's Quebec branch, said businesses are more fragile now than they were in March.

The federation is appealing to the Quebec government to change the latest restrictions for small businesses. Curbside pickup is allowed only for businesses that are authorized to stay open and only for those products that they are authorized to sell.

"We would like to see an adjustment to that policy, for example, to allow curbside pickups, to go get a box after having an appointment with small-scale retailers. It is very secure."