If you go into Phil’s valu-mart in Virgil, or any store, the current provincial pandemic restrictions say you must wear a face-covering.
Since face coverings were first made mandatory, that protocol has continued to evolve, says store owner Phil Leboudec, and now all customers must cover their faces. If they have a medical condition that makes it impossible for them to wear a mask, they can wear a face shield.
All other measures, including the number of people allowed in the store — it’s still 30 at a time at his — and one shopper per household, have remained in effect since last March, he says.
This weekend, representatives from the provincial Ministry of Labour included his store in their “full blitz” through Niagara, and he got an all-clear, with no orders to change anything.
They had a good look at his lunch room setting, as well as throughout the store.
“They looked at everything I do, and it was all in compliance. They didn’t find anything. They told me I was doing a great job and to keep it up.”
Inside the store, there have been other measures Leboudec has put in place, as more has been learned about the spread of COVID-19, particularly in the lunch room. It is no longer a place to socialize, he says. There is no lunch table. Staff sit distanced from each other. “There is no social time. It’s considered ‘rest and recoup’ time.”
Leboudec says he has had very few issues with customers not following protocols, and when they do, he tries to work with them, offering online ordering and curbside pickup.
“Very few people have refused to wear a mask,” he says, “and when they do, we recognize that some people have a legitimate medical reason. But I don’t think there are any respiratory issues with face shields. That’s its purpose, to accommodate those issues. There are a very few who will use a medical exemption to get around it, and that wrecks it for everyone else. Some may talk about their rights, making it a rights issue. We do what we can to work with them, but we can’t let them in to shop. They could be fined $750, and for businesses, I’m sure it could be more.”
Since wearing masks became mandatory inside businesses in NOTL last summer, the number of people who have refused has declined, he says. He estimates compliance from the beginning to have increased from about 85 per cent to now about 99 per cent, and while some stores across the region have backed off a little on enforcing other issues, such as counting customers, washing buggies and restrictions of one shopper per household, he has been sticking to those regulations, paying a person to stand at the door and ensure those measures are followed.
However, he says in a small town like NOTL, he feels grateful he can be a little more flexible. He won’t turn away two seniors who come to shop together, or a mother with kids, who might not have a choice, and if he sees “somebody’s grandmother” waiting outside in line, he’ll move her to the front.
“I always had the opportunity to increase the number of people in the store at one time, but I chose to leave it where it was. I’ve visited a lot of other stores to see what they’re doing, and some were backing off on some things, but we never changed anything. We’ve been in a pandemic since March, and until it is deemed over, it doesn’t matter what the numbers are. Complacency is what is driving it. That’s what drove the numbers back up. There’s no point in contributing to it.”
He says he’s also grateful to work in a community where customers are understanding, as opposed to some of the horror stories he’s heard from stores in the large urban areas, where staff are dealing with aggressive customers, sometimes ending in fights.
Neither he nor his staff will get into an argument, he says. If a customer refuses to leave, his only choice is to call the police, and that would bring a fine of $750.
“I don’t get up to go to work looking for a fight,” he says.
His goal from the beginning has been to keep his customers and staff safe, but some people are just angry, and want a fight.
“Some people just don’t understand grey,” he says.
The pandemic, he adds, “gives them more opportunity to show it.”
The biggest change he’s seen throughout, says Leboudec, is in the number of online orders, now averaging between 40 and 50 a day.
A recent Facebook discussion about the mask requirement, with valu-mart customers trying to determine what, if anything, had changed during this stay-at-home order, praised his order system as an easy and efficient alternative.
“It’s taken us a while to get to this point,” he says.
He went from about 15 online orders a week before the pandemic to more than 300 once the first shut-down started. Since then he’s spent $50,000 on the technical upgrades needed to improve his system, and it has become increasingly more efficient. Instead of customers having to wait six or seven days for scheduled pickups, now it’s usually later the same day, with many repeat customers and some new ones. “There’s no backlog any more.”
That has come with a cost, he says. He brings in enough designated staff to fill up to 60 orders a day, calling them from other duties as necessary. Online orders require 30 to 40 minutes of staff time to fill. “It’s adding more labour costs, but not sales,” he says.
The public has a misconception that stores allowed to remain open during the pandemic are making huge profits, but in his case, his sales were up last year but profits were down, due to all the extra costs associated with pandemic measures.
He stresses he is not complaining. He’s happy to go to work every day, knowing there are many small retailers who have had to close. They and their staff are the ones really suffering, he says. Numbers don’t show outbreaks starting in retail stores, as far as he can see, and it doesn’t seem right to take away so many livelihoods if the statistics don’t warrant it, especially when so many jobs lost are amongst people who can least afford it. He also worries about how many of those jobs will come back, and the long-term impact on the economy if they don’t.
He has nothing but praise for his employees for helping him to get through this, and for helping him by complying with regulations. “It starts with a good staff,” he says. “We’ve built a really good team of people. They come in to work, work long days, and they’re definitely committed to doing things right.”
He’s also grateful to have Loblaws behind him, he believes the most supportive of all the grocery chains.
As for stores that don’t follow the rules, he adds, “that’s where enforcement is so important. Enforcement officers need to be pushing harder.”
On one final subject, Leboudec was asked about the Facebook comments that turned from mask-wearing to his store having the best rotisserie chicken. Why is it any different?
“We still use a rotisserie for our chicken. Most stores are using ovens now, and it’s not the same,” he answers.
“And ours are made with love.”