From blocking aisles to hiding Christmas decorations, Winnipeg’s big retailers stashing what’s non-essential

Flower petals scattered, balloons hidden away and not a single rose to be found.

This bizarre sight at the floral department of a Winnipeg grocery store doesn’t match with the sign above, which is a promise to customers: “Our flowers are always in bloom and ready to go.”

Except, it seems, when Manitoba embarks on the toughest retail lockdown of any province in Canada.

Kathy Blight was saddened when she walked into her Osborne Village grocer and saw the empty tables to her left. She wasn’t the only person feeling that way. 

“It’s very depressing for us too,” a Safeway employee told her.

A flower display has been cleared out at the Safeway location in Osborne Village (Ian Froese/CBC)

Manitoba is taking what it hopes is decisive action in bringing down the country’s worst COVID-19 infection rate. Starting Friday, the businesses considered vital enough to stay open in Manitoba’s near-lockdown can only sell in-store what public health deems essential.

That means food, personal hygiene products and building materials can be purchased, but no jewelry, toys or consumer electronics. These and other non-essential items can still be purchased online or picked up curbside.

The action was deemed necessary after Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial health officer, said too many people were shopping and too many businesses were acting like nothing’s changed.

Large retailers were accused of flouting the spirit of the province’s code red pandemic restrictions by selling only a few essential items but many non-essential products.

By Friday, these non-essential items were prohibited from sale. Retailers had until Saturday to remove them from shelves or rope them off, but many had done so by Friday.

Blue containers and tarps block customers at a Winnipeg Walmart from accessing a section of the store. (Ian Froese/CBC)

The Safeway in Osborne Village had cleaned up their flowers, stuffed a giant snowman balloon into a bag that looked too small and draped plastic where the Christmas decorations and greeting cards were sold.

Blight said the floral arrangements brightened her day. She rushed into the store Thursday to buy a poinsettia, in case it wasn’t there by Friday.

“It’s very sad,” she said of the lack of greenery at Safeway. “Flowers make every space look cheery.”

At a Walmart in Winnipeg’s Garden City neighbourhood, some aisles are blocked by boxes of chocolate, cereal and dog food. In some places, they treated plastic or tarp as if it was a wall.

About a third of the supermarket was inaccessible, such as the furniture, home decor, bedding, sporting goods and office supply areas.

It was rows and rows of goods you can no longer buy.

“I didn’t think it was for real,” Tahnee Flett said. “Only essential things? How can you just buy essential things?”

She wanted new Christmas decorations and a television, but she returned to her vehicle with her shopping list intact.

Tahnee Flett left Walmart Friday afternoon with $200 “worth of junk” rather than the Christmas decorations and new television she wanted. Those latter items are considered non-essential. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

“We basically just came here for $200 of junk,” she said, chuckling at her peculiar shopping experience.

“I just felt anxiety (walking around). Oh my God, the world really is changing, because you go in the store you can’t just go get what you want anymore.”

Harit Bhatti slipped into the Walmart to buy a PlayStation 5, the new video game console that would normally be flying off shelves — if the retailer could put it on a shelf in the first place

He said it makes sense that video games aren’t essential.

“It totally eliminates guys like me from coming into Walmart and free-roaming around,” he said.

Andrewanil Martelli’s shopping trip was calmer than he expected. Retail capacity is limited to 25 per cent, or 250 people, whichever is lower.

“I was suspecting more people would be rushing in, trying to buy stuff,” he said. “Frankly, it wasn’t that bad — it was pretty straightforward.”

Most customers seemed amenable to the new restrictions, including Anne Lima who visited the Superstore in St. James.

“I was fine with it,” she said. “I just came for what I needed anyway.”

It may be the Christmas season, as evidenced by this display at a Superstore location in Winnipeg’s St. James neighbourhood, but Christmas decorations aren’t essential, according to Manitoba’s public health orders. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Carin Branquinho commended the supermarket for quickly separating what could and couldn’t be sold. 

“I was very impressed they had it with big sheets of plastic. They corralled it all and wrapped it up, so even if you were tempted to go into there, you’re out,” she said.

“There’s nothing that you need that bad that you can’t get online or curbside.”

At least one store in Winnipeg, a Canadian Tire, went beyond provincial orders by asking every customer to specify why they showed up.

A stranger was told that “browsing” wasn’t a good enough reason for entry.

“That doesn’t happen in COVID times,” the worker said.

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