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Coping with Covid part 2: Local businesses adapt to pandemic restrictions

Since Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency on March 17, Acton shopkeepers have had to deal with a massive disruptions to their business models. Most of those deemed non-essential reopened in June, some are doing better than others, but all have incurred added costs. This is Part two of Acton UP's survey of how local businesses are dealing with pandemic restrictions, and how they are evolving to remain open and viable.


Acton Optical

80 Mill Street, East


Like most businesses, Acton Optical was closed in March for 12 weeks and didn't reopen until mid-June. In order to assure customer and staff safety, owner Nancy Wilkes has made some adjustments. “We were masked before the bylaw came into effect,” stated Wilkes. “The College of Opticians supplied training webinars, and now everything we do is second-nature. We sanitize everything and booking is by appointment. No more kids' table, no more cloth chairs, only two clients in the store at one time, and as soon as you get up from a chair it's sanitized.”


Besides the investment in masks, face shields and cleaning products, Wilkes had a plexiglass screen installed in the reception area and purchased two expensive ultra-violet sterilizers to keep the frames Covid-free.


“It's a big investment for a small business. But people are still working, people need glasses, there is still insurance money and glasses break. Things were a little slow in June because people were nervous about going out, but we're busy now,” added Wilkes.


Tanners Pub and Grill

40 Eastern Ave.


Tanners has been able to keep their patio open most of the summer, but it only re-opened its indoor dining section about a month ago. To do so, manager Jaime Hill had to reduce capacity. “We removed tables and the bar stools,” she said. “I make sure the tables are six feet apart. We sanitize everything. I do it a couple of times an hour, all the door handles—everything.”


Like most dining establishments, business is way down compared to last year, and Hill has had to let go half of her staff. “I've only got three on the floor and four in the kitchen, that's it,” she said. “But we're doing a lot of take-out. We've been around for some years and food has always been a priority with us. We expanded our take out menu and thankfully we have some frequent take out customers.”


Red Harp Pub

137 Mill Street, East


Samantha and Jason Shein, owners of the Red Harp Pub, have made major capitol investments during the last few months. These include installation of 35 glass panels between the seating booths, two indoor hepa-filters, three outdoor propane heaters and a 19x33 foot tent enclosure


“We're just doing our best trying to stay above water. Acton has been incredibly supportive. This community is pretty awesome,” said Samantha.


“We’re always adapting always to figure out how to maintain doing what we're doing and get through this on the other side. Someone asked me what we're doing with all the picnic tables, and I told them, we'll probably use them next summer” said Jason, implying that we may still be wrestling with Covid-19 a year from now.


“When this first started, we'd get up everyday, get our news sources just to assess what is going on,” Jason added. “The biggest problem for our industry is that there is no clear-cut source of information. I've spent hours doing research on this tent. Usually, there's no policy available, it's all gray and vague. The province sets the base and then the region can tweak it. For our other location [Red Harp] in Erin, in Wellington County, the minute you step out of your car on the property of the restaurant you're supposed to have your mask on. Here [in Acton] you have to put a mask on when you enter the building.”


Jason admits that without the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which pays up to 75 percent of employee wages, their business would be bankrupt. “If the wage subsidy didn't exist, we'd be gone, the whole industry would be. Where once you needed one employee now you need two or three,” he said.


On a brighter note, the proprietors of the Red Harp are among the first in Halton Hills to re-introduce live indoor music. Jason has constructed two seven-foot plexiglass screens that can be wheeled into place in front of a musician or duo. “The rules are that you have to have an impermeable shield in place,” he said. “But you see pictures of other places doing it [hosting musicians] and they've got nothing.”


“It's not about us making money. It's more of a morale booster, to have live music again inside,” added Samantha. “I figure in a year, or a year and a half, we'll be better off than where we are now.”


MacKinnon Family Funeral Home

55 Mill Street, East


Funeral homes were deemed an essential service right from the beginning of the emergency. “Our staff has worked through the entire pandemic, and I do feel like we're one of those forgotten industries,” said Laura Vanderleest, manager of MacKinnon Family Funeral Home.


“I'm not saying we're front line workers, just essential workers, and we have dealt with people that have had Covid here at the funeral home.” Vanderleest emphasized that her staff has had no issue with contracting the virus or having to quarantine. “We have to have the full PPE for any disease we're dealing with to keep our staff safe. That's the part that people don't see, because we're going into these hospitals and homes and bringing people into our care.”


When Premier Ford announced the state of emergency in March, funerals were limited to parties of 10. “So that was difficult for families,” explains Vanderleest. “Now we're able to have a service that's 30 percent of the building's capacity, at the funeral home it's 30 people, at a very large church it can be more, but one of the restrictions was that we have to have one funeral staff member per ten people. So if we have 100 people at a large church we have to have 10 staff. For a small, local funeral home that's difficult, we don't have 10 staff,” she said.


“Our jobs have changed. We are now there to maintain social distancing and make sure people are wearing their masks. A year ago that wasn't part of what we did. We have to disinfect our washroom after every use, during the service we have someone at the door also disinfecting, and someone collecting everyone's information. We're not using guest books anymore, because that's multiple people signing the same book with the same pen.”


But more significantly, Vanderleest thinks the pandemic has changed the atmosphere of a funeral or a visitation, and that's not for the better. “Previously people would come in and gather and kind of console each other, now it's people standing six feet away, and there's not supposed to be any hugging or touching—it's very different.


There are a lot of people who have decided to have a simple cremation with the idea to hold something down the road when things are a little bit more normal. I don't think anybody anticipated the length of time this is going to go on.”


Indeed, these unprecedented times have affected the way people grieve. “It's definitely been a very hard time for people who have lost somebody,” continues Vanderleest. “Not only can they not have the kind of funeral they want, but a lot of people had been restricted from hospital or nursing home visits. So they haven't been able to spend that time with a loved one.”



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