Ford gov’t urged to stop unfair treatment of small biz in rural Ontario where big box retailers don’t even exist as a local shopping option

Eastern Ontario Medical Officer of Health Dr. Paul Roumeliotis participating in the Jan. 19 North Dundas Council meeting.

North Dundas mayor fires off letter to the premier

WINCHESTER — Small businesses are the only local shopping option in the small towns of rural North Dundas Township — so why should their customers be driven out of the community entirely to patronize more distant big-box retailers granted a softer touch by the Ford government’s made-in-Toronto lockdown rules?

The added insult to injury being sustained by rural shops was addressed as North Dundas Council hosted Eastern Ontario Medical Officer of Health Dr. Paul Roumeliotis last night. With the doctor taking part in the virtual session to discuss the latest on the pandemic, the local politicians made a point of releasing a letter expressing their unhappiness to Premier Doug Ford.

North Dundas Mayor Tony Fraser, Jan. 19, 2021.

Signed by Mayor Tony Fraser, the missive urges Ford for more “consideration and thought” on the lockdown’s impact in North Dundas.  “There are no big box stores in close proximity to many of the residents in our municipality. Small businesses are the fabric of our community; its owners, operators and staff are our residents, relatives, neighbours and friends. Having these businesses closed forces our residents to shop in other regions where COVID is more active.”

The lobby effort echoes the sentiment of a resolution passed by the United Counties of SDG council a day earlier.

See the Eastern Ontario Medical Officer of Health’s presentation at North Dundas Council, below, starting at just over an hour into the meeting. Council’s interaction with Dr. Paul Roumeliotis lasts over an hour.

The North Dundas letter goes on to point out that small businesses are “stuck behind locked doors” while hair dressers and salons are left to suffer — operators who, in the mayor’s estimation, observe more safety protocols than big-box retailers.

“We need a new plan, and we need it quickly. We are not asking to close big box stores but rather, to treat all businesses equally.” (See the full text of the letter below).

Deputy Mayor Al Armstrong bluntly voiced the township’s concern while questioning the doctor, describing the lockdown’s impact on North Dundas and SDG small business as “absolutely deplorable.”

“This government, I laud them in many ways … but they have dropped the ball on keeping our … small businesses [viable] that are the pillar of our community, and to bring it all crumbling down,” declared Armstrong. “If it rots from the bottom, the top will fall,” he added, comparing small business to the foundation of the local economy. “The penthouse may be wonderful, but it will fall down if you don’t have the solid ground floor.”

The deputy mayor urged the public to call local MPPs in the Ford government, including Jim McDonell and Steve Clark. “Call them as often as you can, because we have followed the rules throughout SD&G; we are doing better.”

Let big box stores stay open under “whatever deal with the devil” the province might have hatched with those retailers, he suggested, so long as local business gets equal treatment. “They’re capable of allowing one or two people inside at a time … and still aid in their survival.”

Toronto businesses that close may have 100 people lined up to take their place, he noted, arguing the situation is far different in North Dundas. “We can’t afford to lose them.”

Roumeliotis said he “didn’t have a problem” with small retailers being allowed to open again and promised to raise the matter when speaking with McDonell as well as the premier himself later this week. The medical officer supports the SDG resolution, noting the Council of the United Counties of Prescott and Russell and the Board of the Eastern Ontario Health Unit are both expected to pass it as well.

“We’re in a rural area, there’s not much of an economic base to begin with,” observed Roumeliotis, who later acknowledged his own upbringing in a small business. “The businesses are fragile at best; they’re mom and pop shops, and they need to be … on the same playing field as the big retailers and they need to receive support for the losses they’ve gotten.”

He blamed the lockdown for a “tremendous, tremendous economic hit, a catastrophic hit, which has disproportionately affected rural entrepreneurs.”

The situation is “disheartening for us in rural Ontario, in Eastern Ontario and North Dundas,” declared Mayor Fraser. All the township has left for local shopkeepers “is to commiserate with them,” he added. “We are restricted in what we can do,” he said, emphasizing that “shopping local means shopping local” and not driving 45 minutes to a big box retailer in a bigger centre.

“The time has come; it’s been nine-plus months,” Armstrong remarked.

The medical officer also delivered an update on local pandemic numbers. While Eastern Ontario would still qualify as a “grey” lockdown area by some measures, cases have been declining here and in the rest of the province. “The trend that we’re seeing … we’re now headed in a good direction.”

Roumeliotis also indicated his uncertainty over students returning to school next week as originally planned. Over the holidays, up to 22 percent of tested children (up to age 13) have come back as positive. That high rate “will cause a lot of disruption” should school return as scheduled, he suggested.

And while’s confident of “getting the job done” of vaccinating the region against COVID-19, that will depend on fully restoring the vaccine supply. “I just need vaccines.”

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