Experts say businesses are making a costly mistake, as penalties include fines as high as $100,000 and a prison term of up to a year.

No matter how frustrated they are with COVID-19 lockdowns, small business owners would be making a potentially costly mistake by opening their doors when they’re not allowed to, government officials and small business advocates say.
That message comes as an anti-lockdown group called “We Are All Essential” is urging businesses across the country to reopen Feb. 11 — the day after Ontario’s 28-day stay-at-home order is scheduled to expire — in defiance of any orders to stay closed.
The group is led by anti-mask activist Vladislav Sobolev, who’s a vocal supporter of Adamson Barbecue owner Adam Skelly and also founder of Hugs Over Masks. In an interview, Sobolev said there are 400 businesses across the country ready to take part.
“People feel like they’ve got no other choice,” said Sobolev.
Among them are Barbara Bushe and Karthik Raj, the husband-and-wife team behind a Newmarket New Age wellness shop, Point of Light Body, Mind, Spirit Store & Centre.
Bushe and Raj, who are already fighting fines for opening against the rules in December, say business is down 88 per cent compared to pre-COVID-19.
“This is our only way to earn a living,” said Raj, who admitted there’s still a chance the store won’t open next week, based on legal advice.
Small business owners are reeling from the ongoing economic effects of the pandemic, sliding further into debt with each passing day. But that doesn’t mean they should be breaking the rules, says Ryan Mallough, Ontario regional director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
“I understand the frustration and anger. It’s very real, and I’m hearing it from our members. But opening up right now is against the law. If you do it, you’re risking a substantial fine and court appearances, and the costs that go with that,” said Mallough.
Penalties for an individual breaking the rules under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act include fines as high as $100,000 and a prison term of up to a year — but a business which breaks the rules could be fined as much as $10 million, Mallough pointed out.
A business which is a first-time offender is unlikely to see the maximum penalty, but even a fine of a few thousand dollars is something many small businesses can ill afford at the best of times, let alone right now, said Mallough.
“Obviously, we’d like to see businesses able to open back up, responsibly. And that’s what we’re asking the government for,” added Mallough.
A spokesperson for Ontario Premier Doug Ford urged businesses not to break the stay-at-home order, saying that it’s helping to bring down the number of COVID cases.
“We can’t take this progress for granted. We strongly urge that these businesses adhere to public health restrictions and, as they do, take full advantage of the financial support available to them,” said Yelich.
A spokesperson for the City of Toronto said police, municipal licensing and public health officials are ready to crack down on rule-breakers.
“The City of Toronto is aware that a small number of businesses are planning to open on February 11 in contravention of Province of Ontario regulations aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19,” said Jasmine Patrick. “To stop the spread of COVID-19, protect the healthcare system and save lives, it remains imperative all people and businesses comply with provincial orders, City bylaws and public health guidance.”
Sobolev called the lockdowns unjustified, pointing to an “expert research” section on his organization’s website. But the inclusion of the so-called Great Barrington Declaration and World Doctors Association in that category was questioned by Toronto infectious disease expert Dr. Isaac Bogoch.
“These are fringe theories not based in any meaningful science. And to promote them and give them credibility is dangerous. Any group listing them as ‘expert research’ clearly hasn’t done their research,” said Bogoch. “Unfortunately, today, especially thanks to social media, it’s very easy to find something which supports your pre-existing views.”
The Great Barrington Declaration, which has been used by right-wing anti-lockdown groups — especially in the U.S. — to argue for opening businesses up, is a dangerous, unrealistic argument in favour of herd immunity, Bogoch said.
“It essentially says that somehow, we magically shield the most vulnerable people, and then let the virus rip through the general population. Well, look at long-term care. We haven’t been able to shield them. And as for letting it rip through the general population, even if death rates are low as a percentage, that’s still a lot of people dying,” Bogoch said.