Eight weeks to the day the Ontario government announced the second provincial lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, non-essential businesses were permitted to open in the Sudbury district.
The stay-at-home order lifted on Tuesday, and Public Health Sudbury and Districts’ service area was moved into the orange zone of the province’s COVID-19 Response Framework.
Most businesses, including gyms, clothing stores and cinemas, were allowed to re-open with public health protocols in place, including reduced capacities and other restrictions.
Weathering the storm of a second provincial lockdown, however, has been challenging and local businesses are doing their best to stay afloat.
“You have to remain hopeful. You have to be looking forward to the future and planning, but with the pandemic, we’re dealing with a level of unpredictability that makes that really hard,” said Beth Mairs, lead programmer at Sudbury Indie Cinema.
“It is costly when you lose a means to generate revenue. This is the situation that a lot of small businesses are in right now, and reopening is more than just slapping an open sign on the door. There’s a lot more that goes into it than that.”
The Sudbury region’s only art-house cinema opened its doors to in-theatre screenings for the first time since Dec. 22 on Tuesday afternoon.
The cinema took a hiatus when the lockdown was initially announced, but moved into virtual screenings once it became apparent that movie theatres would not be permitted to open in mid-January, either.
“As the programmer for the cinema, I literally planned January three times. It was a long eight weeks, but we have stayed productive and positive while doing our part to bend the curve down,” said Mairs.
“If you had asked me a week ago, I would have fully anticipated that, with March break coming up and the slow down with the vaccines, we would have been required to stay closed until April 1st. I thought that was how our year would end.”
If that would have been the case, added Mairs, the theatre would have been permitted to open for 20 weeks out of the whole year.
“And within that 20 weeks, we’ve been allowed an attendance which is a 75 per cent reduction of our actual capacity. We are just not in a position to decide to stay closed when there is little help,” she said.
Despite the challenges, Sudbury Indie Cinema has found itself in an interesting position because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are only three cinemas in Canada, and we are one of them, that are opening the best films right now. A lot of the films we are able to show right now are submissions to the Academy Awards,” she said.
“We’re in a city small enough that our COVID-19 numbers are not raging out of control, but we’re in a city big enough that we have an art-house cinema. With those two factors together, we find ourselves in an elite position because we are showing films that opened in New York last week, but only virtually.”
Not all industries, however, find themselves able to pursue unique opportunities. Ski hills, for example, just opened for the first time this entire season.
“It has been very difficult, and a lot of ski hills will be lucky to survive this,” said Tom Hutchinson, general manager of Boogie Mountain in Espanola, which opened this week for members only.
“We’ve been lucky because we’ve been able to secure some financial assistance from FedNor to help with our operational budget. Without that, we’d be in serious trouble.”
Although Hutchinson understands the province closed ski hills to try and discourage non-essential travel, several external factors seem to have converged to make the last couple of years especially difficult.
“Last year, there were some ski hills that had a really hard time because of the school strikes. A lot of them made their money from schools coming in, and they’ve lost that revenue for two years in a row now,” he said.
“Then, of course, we weren’t allowed to open, and now March break has been moved, too. It kind of seems like somebody’s staying up at night trying to be mean to ski hills.”
Thankfully, he added, the community of Espanola has been supportive of the ski hill despite the closure.
“Our members have been great. Out of about 160 members, we’ve had five that asked for their money back. A lot of them said put it on next year, and then some said let’s talk at the end of the season. We’re lucky to have the community behind us,” said Hutchinson.
“I hope that we are able to stay open from here on out. I hope that people respect the rules even if they don’t believe in it. We all have to do our part and suck it up a little bit to keep the ski hills open. It’s not a time to prove your point.”
Other local businesses have expressed their willingness to do their part but have some serious doubts about the government’s approach and whether it’s been effective both in terms of supporting the business community and preventing the spread of the virus.
“We were open all summer right up to the fall and then Christmas. There was no surge in cases caused by retail, but they still closed the door on everybody,” said Mark Browning, owner of Cosmic Dave’s Vinyl Emporium in Sudbury.
“I want this pandemic to go away and I want all of us to follow the rules, but when the rules seem to be just throwing stuff at a wall and seeing if it sticks, it’s just … it doesn’t seem thought out.”
Browning doesn’t think that the situation has improved across the province because retail stores closed down, but rather because there was less non-essential travel during the lockdown.
He also expressed frustration that big box stores were permitted to remain open while small businesses that have a lot of capacity to keep their customers safe were forced to close.
“My store is so small that five people in here is full store. Then you have places like Walmart and Costco jammed with people, and you kind of wonder, what’s the point of what they are doing?” he said.
“In my case, there are no other record stores in the city, so I was really competing with online sales during the lockdown. If people want a record, they are going to go online to get it, they aren’t going to wait for me to reopen. My stock room is packed right now with merchandise I ordered before Boxing Day.”
Opening for curbside pickup was difficult, he added, because customers usually like to enter the store and browse through the merchandise to see what’s there.
“It’s just so much safer here because there’s so much less traffic. I can control how many people come in and I can make sure everyone is wearing a mask,” he said.
Browning is also the owner of Tucos Taco Lounge and Beard’s Coffee Bar & Bakery, which is a good thing, he said, or the record store would be in much worse shape.
“We own our own properties, so we’re not paying rent, and because the places we own other than the record store do a lot of takeout, we’re doing fine,” he said.
“If I just had the record store, and I was trying to pay the mortgage, it would have been hard. The government’s assistance, when it comes to the wage subsidy and stuff like that, wouldn’t have made much of a difference, either.”
The Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce echoed the sentiments of local businesses, commenting on the unpredictability of Ontario’s COVID-19 response measures and a lack of timely communication.
“Ultimately, what the business community was asking for was predictability in outcomes related to health data. In December, we were declared a green zone on Friday, and on the Monday a lockdown was announced,” said board chair Cora DeMarco.
“Fast forward to today, we only found out our zones on the Friday for a reopening on Tuesday.”
Having better access to health data and how it relates to the province’s COVID-19 Response Framework would be a big help.
“It’s really important that we have access to transparent public health data and information so that we can be prepared,” she said.
“We are entrepreneurs. We are problem solvers. That’s what we do. Give us the tools and we will figure it out – but we need the tools.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.
Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star