What a trip to get fish food showed me about Toronto’s lockdown

OPINION: Standing outside a store trying — and failing — to get pet supplies, I was struck by the confusion, contradictions, and frustrations of Ontario’s COVID-19 plan
By Matt Gurney - Published on Dec 03, 2020
Toronto was shifted to the grey zone of Ontario’s COVID-19 framework on November 23. (Rachel Verbin/CP)

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I suppose I have only myself to blame.

On Wednesday, the day having gotten away from me, I retrieved my kids from school, bundled them and the dog into the car, and began driving around midtown, making stops along the way and knocking errands off my to-do list. Shopping with young kids has actually become easier during Toronto’s reimposed lockdown. So long as you can park near the entrance of your destination, curbside pickup means stepping out, grabbing your goods, and being back in a warm car in a matter of seconds — before the kids are at each other’s throats or the dog has puked (well, there was one puke, but hey).

But, as I pulled into the parking lot in front of a big-box store, on a mission to obtain food for a fish, I realized that I had no idea whether I was allowed inside or not. After months of changing rules and regulations, I had no idea what I was supposed to do.

Many others were having the same problem. A small gaggle of us stood befuddled at the doors of a big-box pet-supply store as a friendly but strained manager explained, over and over, no, you can’t come in. Yes, we are open, but we’ll have to do curbside. The manager even helpfully explained that one of the meal-delivery services in Toronto was now also delivering pet supplies.

Even by the standards of what has been a bizarre year, that still made me blink. A bento box for me and some chew toys for my little friend here. Full-service in the time of COVID-19. I wonder whether, in a few months, we’ll be Ubering our vaccines.

But back to the parking lot of confusion: the fish had food enough for a day or two more, so I dutifully placed the online order. I’ll pick up the betta flakes Thursday, I suppose. But the entire affair landed with bizarrely opportune timing. Just hours before I and a bunch of other midtowners stood dazed and confused (and cold) in a Toronto parking lot, Premier Doug Ford was trying to explain why some businesses in locked-down areas are permitted to open for in-store shopping while others are not.

The explanation he gave for allowing large big-box-style retailers to be open, but not smaller shops, makes a kind of sense. Ford said that the province’s public-health leadership wants to limit the number of excursions people make and that limiting their on-site shopping to such places as Walmart and Costco helps people get all that they need in one trip, meaning they don’t have to travel from place to place, making many stops. “What the health table's trying to do is limit the amount of visits that you're making out there,” Ford said Wednesday. “If you're going to one of the big-box retailers, it's kind of a one-stop shop. I know it's not fair; believe me, I know it's not fair. But it really limits people from going out and making four, five, six stops on the way home to pick stuff up.”

Unless they need fish food, I guess. I’m not sure whether the province’s public-health leaders and elected officials have quite figured out how to quite square “Do it all in one big shop to minimize your trips” with “Do curbside pickup from as many local businesses as possible,” but that’s probably another column.

It’s easy to criticize and hard to lead. Fair enough. As brutal as the lockdown is for small-business owners, I do understand what the government is trying to do. Since we don’t know (and probably can’t know) where a lot of our community-transmission cases are coming from, we have to try to reduce trips into the community in blunt, aggregate terms, and funnelling people into big-box stores is one fast way of doing that. That makes perfect sense from the strategic, big-picture view.

But one can understand the particular frustration of the small shop owners who see the government directing all their potential clients to their mammoth competitors — competitors that are probably better placed to survive disruptions to business than the little guys. Whatever sense it makes at the top level won’t translate down to the shop owners turning away single customers, masked and sanitized, because the regulations say they have to.

It’s not fair, as the premier said. Now, I’m not demanding fairness — life isn’t fair, and societal mobilizations for wars or public-health emergencies cannot land equally. Never have, never will. In an emergency, a lack of fairness isn’t itself a reason not to do a thing, if said thing needs doing. This is a bitter pill to swallow — or have rammed down your throat — but this is one of those rare instances where lives literally depend on the pills making their way down the necessary gullets.

But it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge the absurdities created by the blunt instruments, the pain and loss inflicted on innocent people, and the continuing communication nightmares that saw me — a guy who is literally paid to know this stuff — standing in a parking lot having the rules explained to be by a frazzled store manager who undoubtedly had better things to do with her time.

We’ve been doing this for almost nine months now. I thought we’d be better at it.

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