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Toronto malls, hair salons prepare to open next week after some of the world’s longest closures
June 23, 2021
Josh Rubin

After seven months of being stuck at home, George Iliadis is looking forward to next week. So, too, he says, are the customers of his small, east-end barber shop, eager to get their now-shaggy manes trimmed.

“They call up and say, ‘George, we miss you.’ Well, I miss them, too. After this long, customers are like family. I’ve been seeing some of the same people for 50 years,” said Iliadis, who’s eager for Step 2 of the Ontario government’s loosening of COVID-related restrictions.

In Step 2, barbershops and nail salons will open for the first time since Nov. 23. Non-essential retailers in malls will also be allowed to reopen, at 25 per cent capacity. It had been expected to happen next Friday, but could come “a few days” earlier, the province’s retiring chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, said Tuesday.

That’s still nowhere near good enough, argues Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo Books and Music. Reisman says there’s no time like the present to open back up, given Ontario’s rapidly rising vaccination rates and falling case counts.

“Let it be 50 per cent. We’ve opened up safely across the entire country. Ontario is the only one where the lockdowns have been this long. Retail is safe,” said Reisman.

While her company is better positioned than some retailers, thanks to a significant online presence, it has still lost millions of dollars in sales during repeated lockdowns that began in March last year, Reisman said.

“We’ve been good soldiers. Let us get back to business without having one hand tied behind our back,” said Reisman.

Oxford Properties, one of the country’s biggest mall operators, is also looking forward to its Ontario malls, including Yorkdale, getting back to business.

“We are ready to reopen. The retailers and restaurants in our shopping centres have endured some of the world’s longest closures,” said Bradley Jones, head of Oxford’s retail division.

Retailers in Ontario are at their wits’ end as they see their counterparts across the country opening up sooner and at higher capacity, said Diane J. Brisebois, president of the Retail Council of Canada.

“They’re angry. They feel like they’ve been lied to and scapegoated,” said Brisebois, who’s pushing for Step 2 to start this Friday.

Bricks-and-mortar retailers had been taking heavy fire from online-only competitors like Amazon even before the global pandemic, Brisebois said. Now, more than ever, they need to bring in every single bit of revenue they can.

“Every day counts and represents sales going to giant online competitors. They’re losing sales, they’re losing market share,” said Brisebois.

Ryan Mallough, Ontario regional director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, argued that the province should eliminate the three-week gap between Stage 2 and Stage 3, given that vaccination rates have already hit what the government had targeted for Stage 3.

“Given where we are with the government’s own publicly stated metrics, we think it’s reasonable and safe to move Step 3 forward to happen at the same time as Step 2,” said Mallough.

Alexandra Hilkene, spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott, said in an emailed statement that there are no snap decisions being made.

“Highly contagious COVID-19 variants have demonstrated that key indicators can change very quickly and we must remain vigilant. As a result, key public health and health-care indicators will be continuously monitored in advance of moving to a step in the road map,” Hilkene said.

For Iliadis, finally being able to cut the hair of some of his loyal customers will spell the end of a frustrating seven months.

“I’ve basically been sitting at home. I go to the shop once a week to pick up mail, and go for walks, but that’s it. My wife and I? We’re driving each other crazy,” said Iliadis with a chuckle. “I’d rather be in the shop and she’d be happier with that, too.”