Ontario's biggest brands among businesses cited during COVID-19 inspection blitz, documents show

Thousands of records from inspection blitzes on big box stores earlier this year show stores all over Ontario tried to follow rules to slow the spread of COVID-19 — but the documents also illustrated a raft of mistakes and even apparent refusals to comply among the province’s biggest brands.

The records, obtained by CTV News Toronto through a freedom of information request, show what government inspectors found while looking to see if big box stores and others were keeping customers safe in a pandemic.

“We did dedicated blitzes to those businesses that were allowed to be open throughout different stages and in January targeted big box stores,” said Monte McNaughton, Ontario’s Minister of Labour.

“We found there were challenges and issues with masking protocols, physical distancing, pre-screening customers and staff and we continued to do literally hundreds if not thousands of inspections in hot spots across the province.”

But with 214 tickets with accompanying fines, and 237 orders to do better in over 2,000 inspections, small business advocates say if they’d been allowed to open, they would have done better.

“Small businesses were supposed to stay closed, which was completely frustrating and unfair,” said Julie Kwiecinski of the Canadian Federation of Small Business.

At one Shoppers Drug Mart on Pioneer Drive in Kitchener, inspectors found seven contraventions of the Reopening Ontario Act in one January visit, including failing to mask up and clean properly.

“The manager seemed completely unaware of most of the ROA requirements and was combative at times. I don’t have confidence that the business is willing to fully comply,” an inspector wrote.

The store got one ticket for the highest number of observed contraventions in some 2,000 records of the big box inspection blitz.

Some chains saw more challenges than others. Hasty Market topped our top ten list at 2.2 contraventions per visit on average of a sample of chains with 10 or more inspections.

At one of its Welland stores, inspectors issued four tickets — tied for the highest in our sample — and wrote, “The employer did not have any protocol in place to keep employees or the public safe.”

Hasty Market didn’t return calls or e-mails. Shoppers Drug Mart did not reply by deadline.

Meanwhile the province’s publicly owned liquor distributor, LCBO, was at the bottom of the list, with only one contravention in 15 visits — just 0.06 contraventions per visit.

“We implemented many measures in our stores, warehouses and offices, working to meet or exceed all public health guidelines and strictly adhering to evolving requirements,” an LCBO spokesperson said in a statement.

Inspectors didn't find any contraventions in some 1,200 visits—a sign that they were more concentrated in fewer stores.

Over in Vaughan, inspectors issued four orders — also tied for highest — to a Freshco on a return visit, writing, “Workers were not happy to see us after the were caught sitting beside the produce with their masks off.”

A spokesperson for Freshco’s parent company, Sobeys, said, “To be clear, the experience in this store was an anomaly in our experience working with Public Health. These orders were resolved by our franchisee partner very quickly.”

NDP MPP Wayne Gates said he didn’t believe the government’s decision to close small businesses but open large ones made sense.

“The decision wasn’t made on the data. It wasn’t made on the safest way to operate. I think they took a lot at who’s our friends — and that’s big box stores,” Gates said.