Officials are urging residents to avoid panic buying after some shoppers packed into malls in Toronto and Peel region ahead of Monday's lockdown, which will see shopping centres shuttered.
"We know this is a difficult time, but we need everyone to be patient and ensure there isn't unneeded pressure on our supply chains. Please don't stockpile or panic buy," said Premier Doug Ford in a statement to CBC News, when asked about increased crowds this weekend.
He said that grocery stores, convenience stores, hardware stores, and other retailers offering essential goods and services will remain open as the lockdown begins.
"If we all do our part, there will be plenty of supply for everyone," he said.
The premier's comments come as some malls extended their hours in anticipation of an influx of shoppers over the weekend.
As of 12:01 a.m. Monday, malls and other businesses deemed non-essential like restaurants will be shuttered in a bid to curb a staggering increase of COVID-19 cases in the province's most populous regions.
Malls will be limited to curbside pickup or delivery only starting on Monday as part of new restrictions.
Yorkdale Shopping Centre and Scarborough Town Centre are both open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. this weekend. Square One Shopping Centre in Mississauga also expanded its hours from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
In a media release, those malls said they encourage shoppers to visit at off peak hours, which are considered before or after 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Despite the ask to arrive early, shoppers headed to some malls in droves on Saturday. Photos showed the parking lot at Yorkdale had very few spaces free.
When asked about concerns about an influx of shoppers and whether malls are doing enough to control crowds, Cadillac Fairview told CBC News that the health of employees, clients and guests are its "first priority."
"While this is disappointing news for our community, with everything we know right now, we believe this is the best course of action amid the current COVID-19 environment," Cadillac Fairview said about the lockdown.
"We will continue to monitor the situation closely, and work with provincial and public health authorities as required."
Panic buying 'worrisome,' says Toronto mayor
In a statement, Ontario's Ministry of Health also echoed Ford's comments, calling on residents in regions with higher case loads not to travel to areas that are experiencing a lower amount of virus spread.
Toronto Mayor John Tory also issued a statement Sunday, calling it "worrisome" to see people rushing to malls in advance of Monday's looming lockdown.
"My message for the last few weeks has been clear: Please stay home as much as possible right now," Tory said in the statement.
"We know that crowd scenes and gatherings can increase a person's chance of contracting COVID-19."
He added that the weekend was meant for businesses to plan for the anticipated closures, and not for people to "rush out and do Christmas shopping or buy items that are not essential."
Tory is instead urging people to support local businesses by using the curbside pickup and shopping online option during the lockdown.
Last minute shopping to be expected: Infectious disease doctor
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist and researcher based at Toronto General Hospital, said seeing more people visit malls this weekend is to be expected ahead of a lockdown.
"It's really important people have what they need, because we're not supposed to be leaving our houses much and we're only going to be going out for essential goods and essential services. We've got to prepare for this," he said. The regions that are going into lockdown contain thousands of people who had 48 hours to get their affairs in order, he said.
Bogoch said if most people are wearing a mask and distancing in the mall, then the chances the mall visits lead to a larger outbreak are unlikely. Adequate ventilation is also key to making indoor spaces safer, he said.
"But of course, we know we're supposed to avoid crowded, confined settings," he said, adding that some of the scenes from the malls this weekend have been more packed in. However, generally he's seen people line up six feet apart and wear masks indoors.
"I think we'll be okay," he said.
Businesses and people need the chance to prepare prior to a lockdown, and as long as everyone is operating in a responsible manner, more people attending malls isn't a huge cause for concern, he said.
"The scenes that we're seeing aren't terrible," he said, adding that it's not perfect everywhere, but most indoor retailers have demonstrated a responsible environment. "I don't think we're going to see a spike as a result of this."