COVID-19 continues to take its toll on businesses and people, 12 months after the first lockdown

Sarah Lynne Maloney, owner of Malones Pint House, said the City’s Patios Everywhere program helped bars and restaurants impacted by COVID-19, but added the pandemic has taken its toll, emotionally and financially, over the past 12 months.

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When the term coronavirus, soon to morph into COVID-19, first began circulating in the early part of 2020, not many people thought we’d still be living under the restrictions the emerging pandemic would necessitate, more than a year later.
But here we are, 12 months after the Province locked down all but essential sectors of the economy, still reeling from the social and economic impacts of the virus, racing to get the population vaccinated before a possible, maybe even probable, third wave driven by new variants of the virus sweeps in, perhaps forcing another shutdown.
In fact, we may already be there, according to the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA), which said in a recent tweet “variants of concern” are rapidly rising, and the number of people in intensive care is trending upwards again. “We are now in stage three,” the OHA said. Other medical experts dispute that a third wave has arrived, saying it’s still too early to tell.
Among those hoping, perhaps even praying, that a third wave and ensuing lockdowns can be avoided are small-business owners like Sarah Lynne Maloney, proprietor of Malones Pint House on Bradford Street. She and other business owners have endured three lockdowns:
• On March 17 of last year following Ontario’s first COVID-19 death, a Barrie man in his 70s, the Province declared a state of emergency, locking down schools and all services deemed non-essential. Some services, including some retail stores, recreation and sports facilities, professional workplaces, golf courses, and marinas, reopened (with health measures in place) in May. Bars and restaurants in most of the province, including Barrie, reopened in June.
• On Dec. 26, the province, along with Simcoe/Muskoka, entered another lockdown phase, and on Jan. 14, the Province enacted a stay-at-home order. It lasted until Feb. 16 when the province moved back to the colour-coded reopening framework, with Simcoe/Muskoka going to the Red-Control zone.
• The region moved back into the Grey-Lockdown level on Monday, March 1 after the region’s medical officer of health, Dr. Charles Gardner, called for an emergency brake to be applied due to concerns over the presence of COVID-19 variants in the region. The measure was lifted after a week, moving the region back to Red-Control.
The COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions caused personal and business turmoil, with Maloney saying a low point was having to lay staff off, not once but three times. It impacted her emotionally and financially. 
“Having to lay somebody off is probably the worst thing that I have ever had to do … having to tell someone you are laying them off because you don’t know when you are going to open again is humiliating for a small-business owner. You feel like you are defeated, like you have done something wrong. It’s awful,” she said. 
“It’s very difficult for me on a personal level. I don’t sleep at night wondering how people are going to make ends meet.”
Maloney describes the impact of COVID-19 as devastating, although a break in the gloom happened last summer when the City brought in its Patios Everywhere program, essentially allowing bars and restaurants to extend patios onto adjacent parking spots.
“We were very lucky in the summertime to be able to extend our patio to gain some of our business back. But even though it was one of the largest patios around, we still didn’t have the same amount of gross sales we would have had if we had been able to fully open indoors, and outdoors. It made up for the three months (of lockdown), but it definitely didn’t cover everything from being closed from March until June.”
The City has announced plans to bring the program back for the coming patio season. It will help establishments, especially those that don’t have built-in patio areas, said Maloney, who added the initial one likely saved a number of businesses from going under. She also appreciates how easy the City made it to extend the patios, with no additional fees or red tape to cut through.
Even though Malones and other locales were open for takeout during much of the past year, it was a struggle to survive on that alone, and during the low times, Maloney admits wondering if it was even worthwhile to open the doors at all.
“You can’t expect people every single day to call you up and get takeout. Everyone is on limited funds, and there are a lot of people who are still unemployed. Everyone wants to support local, and everyone has been wonderful about doing it, but it’s just not something that is feasible all the time.”
A high point arrived with the lifting of the first lockdown.
“Our patio was full the first day, which was fantastic, and it was cold out. All through the summer our patio was thriving, and we had a lot of personal recommendations from people who had never been here before. That was amazing, it just made you feel good.”
She admits, though, to being frustrated by the capacity limits placed on bars and restaurants, which can only seat 10 people inside during the Red-Control level, and none at all during lockdown. Under current lockdown protocols, large retailers such as grocery stores can operate at 50 percent capacity, while other retailers, including big-box stores, can be at 25 percent capacity. In the Red-Control zone, it’s 75 percent capacity for supermarkets, and 50 percent for other retailers.
Local bars and restaurants, said Maloney, are strictly adhering to distancing, division, tracing, and sanitary measures mandated to keep staff and customers safe, adding that not one case of COVID-19 has been linked to her business. The health unit’s reporting puts the region’s hospitality sector at the low end of COVID-19 outbreak spectrum.
“It irritates me that small businesses have gone above and beyond, and we aren’t allowed to open … that’s ridiculous.”
Community leaders, including Mayor Jeff Lehman, have called on the Province to ease the capacity limits on bars and restaurants.
“While large chain businesses have a corporate framework to support them, small businesses must sink or swim on their own. If all retail environments are able to remain open with reduced capacity, there seems little reason why other small businesses cannot remain open with the same protective measures in place,” he said.
Government programs like rent and wage subsidies have helped to cover the bills, and customers have generally followed the rules, but the past 12 months took a toll, emotionally and fiscally, said Maloney.
“There are people who are just hanging on. A lot of business owners aren’t taking paycheques, I’m not taking a paycheque. I’m going to make sure that, first of all, the staff is paid and the gas stays on. It is definitely a struggle and everyone is feeling it.”