Q & As for Retailers on COVID-19

Answers to frequently asked questions for retailers. Updated March 30, 2020.

Below are answers to our members’ most frequently asked questions concerning ways to work through COVID-19 and its operational challenges and implications. We update these Questions & Answers daily.

The Federal government announced changes to the previously wage subsidy on March 27, 2020. They released a list of frequently asked questions on that previous subsidy, but note that these details may change following the March 27, 2020 announcement.

Our dedicated COVID-19 page is updated daily with information addressing retailer-specific questions and concerns.

RCC member-exclusive webinars every Monday, Wednesday and Friday on a variety of topics that impact retail operations during the COVID-19 crisis. RCC’s dedicated team of Regional Directors are also available for members to call with specific questions about the most current regulations their areas. Jump to contact information. 

“Essential Service” Retail Definitions

As the crisis progresses, governments across Canada are mandating closures. Many categories of retail, in addition to grocery and pharmacies, provide necessary services for the varied needs of Canadians. 

The definition of “essential services” is different by province. Please refer to RCC’s summary of retail essential services in various regions and our Relief Measures and Updates by Region pages for more information.

In several provinces, “non-essential” workplaces have been mandated close to help curb the preventable spread of COVID-19. Workers that can work from home are being encouraged to do so.

RCC is continuing to work with governments at all levels to further refine the range of retail services deemed essential to meet the diverse needs of Canadians.   

In most areas of Canada, online retail businesses can continue to sell to customers online, by telephone or by mail or delivery. Curbside pickup is also allowed as long as 2-meter physical distancing is maintained and customers.  


Operating during the crisis: Relief programs

Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB)

Those who are on or have already filed for EI need not refile. Any filings in the current EI queue will be transited over to CERB as the benefit will be the same. Those whose EI will expire will be able to move onto the CERB program. When CERB expires, new EI claims will be allowed for those who have not found work or are still laid off. Specialized EI benefits: maternity, parental, caregiving, fishing and work-sharing should continue to be applied for through EI process.
Application days are based on birth-month: Jan-Mar on Monday; Apr-Jun on Tuesday; Jul-Sep on Wednesday; Oct-Dec on Thursday. Birthdays of any month can apply Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Monthly filings will be required. CERB is available until October 3, 2020 and filing may be done retroactively until December 2, 2020. Apply through CRA “my account” or Service Canada account (which has been simplified) or by phone with automated phone service. Service is provided 21 hours per day, seven days per week. Your personal contact information and SIN is required. Direct deposit should be complete within three business days after application or a cheque issued within 10 days by mail. If you start earning income, you would be expected to notify CRA. Applicants are not precluded from applying more than once if circumstances change.

The program applies to:

  • Employees but also to the self-employed.
  • Individuals who are at least 15 years old and have not quit their job voluntarily and who are or expect to be without work for 14 consecutive days within the initial 4-week period. Expected to have no employment income in the 4-week periods thereafter. Note that this may change – the Prime Minister has announced that some earnings may be permitted as the program is further refined.
  • Applicants need to have had $5000 in employment-related income either in 2019 or in last 12 months prior to application.  Income must be related to employment: employment; self-employment; maternity and parental benefits under the Employment Insurance program and/or similar benefits paid in Quebec under the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan.

Pays $500/week for up to 16 weeks. Paid in blocks of 4 weeks at $2000. Payments are retroactive to eligibility date (which will likely be your application date). CERB income is taxable but tax will not be withheld at source.


The Federal government has announced a comprehensive series of financial relief measures over the past few weeks, most recently March 27. 

For more information:

Recent Federal support measures to help on this include the Canada Emergency Support Benefit. It includes $2000 per person for 4 months. In general, and pending EI eligibility, EI and EI Work-Share also offer avenues for income support to workers impacted by COVID-19. The relevant government sources are: EI and EI Work-Share, CERB.


The Federal government first announced a wage subsidy for small businesses on March 18, 2020. That subsidy was equal to 10% of the remuneration paid between March 18, 2020, and June 20, 2020, up to $1,375 per employee and to a maximum of $25,000 total per employer. Having once calculated that subsidy, employers could reduce their current remittance of federal, provincial, or territorial income tax that they sent to the CRA by the amount of the subsidy. 

As of March 27, 2020, the government announced a substantial enhancement to the original March 18, 2020 wage subsidy package. see RCC’s federal update for more information. The latest federal document is here and RCC notes that the eligibility requirements may also change. We will share details as they are received.

EI is Employment Insurance. The waiting period for EI sickness benefits (to date, only for sickness and no other EI claims) has been waived. 

EI Work-Share is a program to tide employers and employees over in tough times by allowing employers to have staff on reduced hours while the staff are supported through the EI framework. EI Work-Share is based on an agreement between employees, employers and Service Canada. The maximum length of this form of support (ie. of EI Work-Share agreements under COVID-19 special measures) has been doubled to over a year (76 weeks). 

CERB is a new benefit announced March 25, 2020 distinct from the EI framework, introduced to combat economic hardship during COVID-19. More detail on how the CERB will interact with EI and EI Work-Share will be forthcoming; applications are expected to be open in early April and funds from applications are expected to flow from applications shortly after that. Indications are that the CERB will also be available to support smaller, self-employed business owners who are significantly impacted by COVID-19. (Information current to March 26 in a rapidly evolving situation).

The legislation establishing the CERB does include a $5,000 minimum earnings threshold for worker eligibility (Bill C-13, Part 2, section 2). The $5,000 threshold is explicitly subject to change through regulation. Earnings can be from employment, self-employment and several other sources. Until further guidance is release by the government, Bill C-13 Part 2 is a good source for more details: you can find it here.  This answer is current as of March 30, 2020.

Service Canada is adapting to the sudden, COVID-19 high demand by streamlining processes and adding staff resources. Given that they are doing so, your attempts to get through to them on the phone may meet with success if you persist. Also, try not to enter any content in the ROE Comments box. Content in the comments box can interfere with automatic processing of your ROE. This answer is current as of March 30, 2020.

Generally, if shortage of work is why you are laying them off, ie. you have closed your retail business or have reduced operations, use code A (Shortage of Work). If the person is sick or in mandated quarantine, use code D (Illness or Injury), which should allow them to take advantage of the waived one week waiting period for EI sickness benefits.

The use of codes that are not the outright E (Quit), such as N (Leave of Absence), may still have ramifications for a worker’s ability to claim EI and CERB. How the EI and CERB regimes will function together is a rapidly evolving area and RCC will share details as they emerge. For more Q&As specifically on ROE coding and other payroll questions arising from COVID-19, see COVID-19 Canadian Payroll Association guidance. There is also a brief overview of ROEs and COVID-19 on the government’s EI website. This answer is current as of March 30, 2020.

Retaining maximum liquidity during this crisis is imperative to the long-term viability of many retail businesses.  As retailers are forced to bridge fixed expenses with greatly reduced incoming revenue, a variety of new options must be considered.  RCC is working closely with multiple retailers and all levels of government and industry to develop a recommendation for COVID-19 policies to ensure retailers continue to have access to the funds they need during this exceptional time.

For more information on additional relief measures from the economic impact of COVID-19 that includes direct support and tax deferrals to Canadian workers and please see the Department of Finance Backgrounder.

Ivanhoe-Cambridge has announced a relief program/rent deferral for their tenants.

RCC is in ongoing discussions with organizations that represent major real estate landlords about the viability of their existing tenants. We have been clear – they must provide relief to retailers and that any communication to governments, or Retail Council of Canada, without first articulating what accommodations will be made to retailers regarding their rent, will not be well received by our community. We will continue to engage in this conversation and will provide updates on a regular basis.

Do gathering limits apply to retail?

Confusion around these broad statements continues. Today, these limits do not apply to retailers per se, although provinces have made statements regarding retail that you should be aware of  – see our Relief Measures and Updates by Region pages. RCC is pushing for greater clarity on how these limits apply to different store sizes. The goal is to ensure simpler direction for all to understand what is acceptable in retail environments and easier implementation protocols as they relate not just to people in the stores but also for line ups inside and outside of stores.

For example, the Quebec government recently announced that retailers can use the standard measurement of 50% of the maximum capacity authorized by fire code regulations.  

RCC is working with governments to clarify how the general rules prohibiting gathers of more than 5, 25 or 50 people. We are pushing to follow a 50% of fire code “standard occupancy limit” apply to the retail environment being careful to always maintain the 2 meter physical distancing requirement.

Once there is greater clarity across the country on the specific regulations for retailers, intervention by police or the fire department is not expected to be required. 

Keeping supply chains strong

Governments across the country are working with local manufacturers, food producers and distilleries who have capabilities to produce these goods to do so in a manner that is approved by Canadian health standards so that retailers can have stocked shelves and that our supply chains remain strong.

We continue to remind customers to only buy what they need.  This is especially important since people who purchase items in unnecessarily large quantities cause shelves to be emptied much more quickly and add pressure to already stressed ecommerce systems. Buying more than is needed at this time results in unnecessary delays for people getting access to the goods they need.

Keeping everyone safe and healthy while keeping our supply chains strong is the essential. Special exceptions are being made as they related to the transportation of goods across borders to ensure our citizens get the essential food, medicines and supplies they require.

The 14-day quarantine will not apply to these drivers.

Obligations to create COVID-19 safe work environment?

  • Enhance the premise’s sanitation plan and schedule, and ensure staff are practicing proper hygiene. This includes frequent hand washing, coughing or sneezing into an elbow rather than a hand, and avoiding touching one’s face.
  • Ensure the washrooms are always well stocked with liquid soap and paper towels and that warm running water is available. Antibacterial soap is not required to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
  • Provide clean carry-out bags for purchased food and grocery products. Customers should not use their own containers, reusable bags or boxes.
  • Post signs at each check out indicating no customer packaging is to be used or placed on checkout counters.
  • Place hand sanitizer with a minimum of 60% ethyl alcohol in dispensers near doors, pay stations and other high-touch locations for customers and staff use.
  • Use a physical queue line controls such as crowd control cordons at entrances and in checkout lines outside the stores.
  • Place markers such as tape or cones every 2 metres to provide customers with visible queues that support physical distancing.
  • Consider placing alcohol-based hand sanitizer dispensers near doors, payment stations and other high-touch locations for customer and staff use, making wipes and trash bins available for wiping shopping carts and disposing of the wipes.
  • Have clear signs in multiple locations that indicate the maximum number of customers and staff a store can accommodate at any one time.
  • Consider monitoring the number of customers and staff entering and leaving the store. Once the maximum number of persons for a store is reached, allow one person in for every person that leaves.
  • Offer online or telephone food and grocery orders with delivery or pick up services as alternatives to shopping in person.
  • Clean high touch surfaces such as pay stations, bagging areas and carts or hand baskets between each customer and use and encourage tap payment over pin pad use.
  • Limit the handling of credit cards and loyalty cards wherever possible, by allowing customers to scan. There is currently no evidence that COVID-19 can be passed on to others by touching or handling cash.
  • Employees who handle cash or credit card must wash their hands frequently with soap and water. This includes before any breaks, at the end of their shift, and before preparing food.
  • Should operators and employees choose to use gloves, ensure thorough hand washing before and after each change of gloves.
  • Ensure staff with cold, influenza, or COVID-19 like symptoms such as sore throat, fever, sneezing, and coughing remain at home.

Employees must take the necessary steps to protect their own health and wellbeing and that of their co-workers. Employees must comply with any preventive measures put in place by the employer (use of personal protective equipment, hygiene requirements, etc.), and they must report hazards to their employers. The possibility they may have been exposed to the virus or are displaying COVID-19 symptoms is a workplace hazard that must be reported to the employer immediately.

Customers are also urged to do their part: physical distancing, not shopping when they have a cold, having one person do the shopping instead of going as a group, and, being especially respectful of the retail employees who are making personal sacrifices to ensure Canadians have the necessities they need during this crisis.

Under Occupational Health and Safety legislation, employees have a right to refuse work if they have reasonable grounds to believe it is dangerous to their health or safety. Remind your employees of the preventive measures that have been put in place, and the safety products available to them. This may help mitigate instances of employees refusing to work due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Each employee has a duty to report any dangerous situation to their supervisor. The employer then has a duty to take remedial action by having the workplace health and safety committee and/or representative investigate. In some cases, a government health and safety officer may need to investigate as well.

The employer may choose to reassign work. In this case, the employee must receive the same wages and benefits as they would have received under their previous assignment.

The Bank of Canada has advocated for retailers to continue to accepting cash to ensure Canadians can have access to the goods and services they need, particularly for the low income or those that might be “unbanked”. However, cash is handled many times and therefore can present some risk.

Ensure employees frequently wash their hands and have access to single use gloves, hand sanitizer and avoid touching their face.

The province of Quebec is actively discouraging the use of cash, and select providers are now increasing the limits on “tap” contactless transactions.

Yes, it is your property and you have the right to screen customers and refuse entry. However, this must be approached with great caution, to avoid any impression of excluding customers for any reason beyond a belief that the customer may be symptomatic.

According to best practices from the provincial health care authorities, you should send employees home to self-isolate for 14 days. You are not required to close the store itself.

  • The health care provider who makes the diagnosis has the obligation to call and inform Public Health right away.
  • The Public Health official will conduct the investigation and contact the employer, notifying them about the investigation.
  • The employer must inform employees about the situation and ask the staff to self-monitor their symptoms, keeping a record of all the details, and contacting public health as needed.
  • Practice physical distancing, and if an employee(s) does not feel well, they should stay at home. In Ontario, a doctor’s note is not required.
  • The employer is not obligated to inform customers. Public Health officials will be conducting the investigation and providing the required follow-up to the retailer.

Best practice is evolving. Restrict access to area(s) the employee worked and performed a comprehensive cleaning. The good news is that using household cleaning solutions are effective when label instructions are followed. How long the virus remains on different surfaces varies, but indications is that it could be up to several days.

Here is a good source of information on cleaning and taking care of the workplace and a handy bleach calculator for cleaning.


If you have questions specific to your area, please contact RCC’s Regional Directors directly:

Be heard. Save money. Stay informed.

Become a member