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These Essential Non-Essentials – Lessons Being Learned from The Pandemic Shutdown

Ottawa, Preston Street, June 2020
Ottawa, Preston Street, June 2020

“Happy birthday!” I texted a friend in April. “Cool gift from sweetheart?”

The innocuous question prompted a sad smiley face. “Nope, stores are closed!”

Oops, right. Should have known, having celebrated my birthday in lockdown a month earlier…

Like in many cities around the world, in a desperate attempt to slow down the spread of COVID-19, Ontario ordered the shutdown of “non-essential” businesses and activities on March 24, 2020.

It made sense.

I mean, you don’t technically need the latest fashion when you’re supposed to stay home. Giant flat-screen TV? Meh, all sporting events are cancelled anyway. Dining out? Cook your own damn Kung Pao chicken. And anything made in China wasn’t probably being made in China as the country was fighting the pandemic as well.

Besides, “essential” businesses—supermarkets, pharmacies, liquor stores, gas stations—were still operating, albeit with reduced hours.

The very definition of “non-essentials” vary across countries and regions. For instance, in Ontario, cannabis stores were trimmed down from the first “non-essential businesses” list on April 4. Then, three days later, an emergency order was passed, allowing cannabis retail stores to reopen for click-and-collect and delivery services. Similarly, hardware stores and pet food stores were on the first “essential businesses” list but walk-ins were no longer allowed on April 4, which prompted giant lineups at Canadian Tire and Home Depot the day before closure.

In the big scheme of things, the non-essential businesses mandatory closure didn’t worry me much at first—a draconian shelter-in-place order like in France would have been a tougher pill to swallow.

But it’s been 11 weeks now, and “non-essentials” are becoming pretty damn essential.

For about a month, the only thing we bought was food and it quickly turned into a major chore with queues and supply issues. I briefly looked into grocery delivery but I discovered you can’t actually have groceries delivered, you have to pick them up and scheduling a time slot was impossible—“two-week waiting list!” my neighbour complained.

By mid-April, when it became clear that we were in for the long run, we also realized the house wasn’t a bunker loaded with endless supplies and we needed more than food to work and stay sane. For instance, I don’t have a printer—when I need to print, it’s usually a big job, and it’s best handled by the Ottawa Public Library laser printer. I don’t have a drawer full of fun craft materials either. We were lucky to have an old, spare laptop for Mark because shockingly, we’d never thought a seven years old would need to “work” online. It took us a month to find him a bike—Walmart was the only option and they were always sold out. We don’t have clippers or hair-cutting tools because when we need a haircut, we go to a barbershop or hair salon. Right now, Mark also needs new shoes and clothes—last year’s tee-shirts and shorts are too small.

Yes, I know, online shopping. Except it’s not that easy because the entire supply chain was disrupted, from manufacturing to delivery.

Usually, I only buy a few selected items online—books (cheaper), shoes (off season, two brands that fit me well) and occasionally Christmas presents if winter came early. I don’t like Amazon’s business model and labour practices, plus shipping fees are high in Canada.

But early May, I logged into Amazon and bought a few books for Mark, thus becoming one of these heartless customers buying “crap” in the middle of a pandemic and adding to the hellish workday of warehouse employees. Delivery took forever, by the way.

We’re not in phase 1 of easing restrictions and in theory, stores with a street entrance (i.e. not in malls) can reopen. In practice, many didn’t and most of the ones that did only offer “curbside pickup,” i.e. shop online and pick up your purchase on the parking lot.

Ottawa, June 2020
Ottawa, June 2020

To me, for now, stores are as good as closed. I hate the drive-through or the click-and-collect model. For instance, I’ll pass on Starbucks. I used to enjoy my daily coffee cup because the team was friendly and occasionally, I’d sit down with a book or bring some work. But if I have to order through the app and pick up my coffee left on the table blocking the entrance, may as well make my own coffee at home. I’ll skip on the farmer’s market as well because you have to pre-order online and pick up your basket at the designed spot and time—I’m not that desperate for produce. I’ll pass on food delivery, mostly because I despise the gig economy.

Ottawa, Merivale Road, June 2020
Ottawa, Merivale Road, June 2020

Lessons being learned so far:

  • It’s a good idea to have supplies of things you’re likely to miss the most—nonperishable ingredients for comfort food recipes, feel-good personal care products, a couple of new toys, etc.
  • Convenience stores stayed open in Ontario and they were a lifesaver—I got coffee, the occasional bottle of Coke or water and friendly interactions when everything was closed or the supermarket lineup was too long. I found plenty of franchises like Quickie are family-operated and employees took great pride in keeping the place safe and spotless.
  • The “buy now” button isn’t magic—anything you order online was manufactured, shipped to a warehouse, processed, dispatched, etc. and it involves tons of people.
  • The world isn’t sterile. Shopping in a store or having goods delivered, your items will have been handled by several third parties.
  • Except for much-needed non-essential essentials, I don’t really miss shopping. I miss social interactions, small talk and people.

I really hope we’re going somewhere with this endless lockdown…

Finally found proper thinning scissors to cut Mark's hair!
Finally found proper thinning scissors to cut Mark’s hair!

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