Q & As for Retailers on COVID-19

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 as new information becomes available. You can search questions below with the most recently updated appearing first or switch tabs to view by category.

  • What do I do if I am asked to share someone’s health information with a public health authority to help deal with the COVID-19 pandemic?

    Retailers may receive requests from other organizations to share information that would identify an individual. Few circumstances legally require a private company to share someone’s health information with the government.

    Before you share any information, verify whether the organization, e.g.: a health authority, has a legal basis for requesting it, or if they are just asking you to cooperate.

    If you do share a person’s information, assess the request carefully. Taking care what information you release, why, and to whom will help you reduce regulatory, litigation and reputational risk. Whether you are legally required to share someone’s personal information or not, documenting how you analyzed privacy considerations in the process of deciding to share that information would be wise. Privacy principles such as accountability, transparency, consent and limiting data collection and sharing still apply. View more legal information

  • Can I have employees on Work-Share and receive the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) for them at the same time?

    It is possible to combine both the Work-Sharing Program and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). However, any Work-Sharing EI benefits received by employees through the Work-Sharing program will reduce the subsidy you would receive under the CEWS.

  • What is the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) and how can it help smaller retailers?

    The CEBA is a federal interest-free, partially forgivable loan program available to smaller retail businesses during COVID-19. CEBA eligibility requires a maximum 2019 payroll of $1.5 million and there is a separate stream for businesses with payrolls at or below $20,000. 

    Eligible retailers can receive interest-free CEBA loans of up to $40,000. If repaid by December 31, 2022, 25% of the loan will be forgivable (up to $10,000). The government has announced that an additional $20,000 loan will be made available. 50% of this second loan, ie. up to $10,000, is also forgivable if repaid by the December 2022 deadline. 

    In total, the CEBA will offer retailers an interest-free loan of $60,000, of which $20,000 will be forgivable if repaid by December 31, 2022. The deadline to apply for a CEBA loan has been extended to March 31, 2021. 

    View RCC’s CEBA overview for more information

  • What is the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERS) and how will it help retailers?

    The CERS is a federal rent and property expense support program to help businesses affected by Covid-19.  If eligible, retailers will receive direct support from the federal government. View more information

  • How do I apply for the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERS)?

    Applications are to be made online after the relevant subsidy claim periods have passed. Retailers will need to apply through CRA via MyBusiness Account (MyBA) OR Represent a Client

    CERS is administered by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) on a period-by-period basis, with each period spanning 4 weeks.  

  • With increases in eCommerce and remote work, what can independent retailers do to protect themselves against fraud and cybersecurity risks during COVID-19?

    Phishing, videoconferencing vulnerabilities, malware and simple mistakes are only some of the increased cybersecurity risks.

    Retailers seeking to protect themselves against heightened fraud and cybersecurity risk must look to their people (e.g. training), processes (e.g. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies) and technologies (e.g. updated virus protection, videoconferencing safety).

    Keep in mind that not all fraud risks are necessarily cyber risks. For example, reported COVID-19 scams include fraudsters posing as public health agencies to get personal information (retailers should always check that someone asking them for this data has legal authority to do so) and posing as vendors selling COVID-19 tests. 

    Read more:

    Cybersecurity guidance specifically for small and medium businesses exists and could be useful to many independent retailers. View resources.

  • When employees who are part of a work-share agreement receive EI benefits to compensate for the wages the employer is no longer paying them due to their reduced hours, what is the maximum top-up allowed?

    When employees have work and work for the company, they are paid their full wages by the company.  On the days they do not work, they are entitled to 55% of their salary to a maximum of $573 per week pro-rated to the days they do not work.

  • What individual federal-support programs exist to replace the CERB?

    The federal government has created four new programs to replace the CERB. These include a revised form of Employment Insurance (EI), the Canada Recovery Benefit, the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit and the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit. See RCC’s guide to new income support programs.

  • Do retailers need a separate application for each location, or can a work-share agreement apply to staff across multiple store locations?

    If the stores have separate ownership, e.g. if they have different business numbers, then they have to submit separate applications.  If they all fall under one business number, then one application can be submitted, with each of the work-sharing units documenting on a separate Attachment A.

  • Can commissioned salespeople participate in the work-share program? If so, how do we calculate their income?

    Yes they can, it they meet the eligibility criteria. For the purpose of submitting your application, you should estimate the average pay, including salary and commissions of each individual and then average it out over the whole unit for an overall amount.

  • What is the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and can I apply retroactively?

    The CERB was a federal COVID-19 income-support benefit for individuals. It provided $500/week payments covering part of 2020 and has now ended. Retroactive applications closed on December 2, 2020. 

  • Assuming that EI Work-Share benefits are not necessarily going to match the employee’s previous income, are Supplementary Unemployment Benefits (SUB) an option?

    No, this is not eligible with the Work-sharing program. The utilization of Supplementary Unemployment Benefits (SUBs) in conjunction with WS benefits is not allowable due to the fact that WS participants are considered employed.

  • How do I contact Service Canada to get specific information on detailed Work-Share questions?

    The ESDC has established a Work-Share Rapid Response team. You can send them general  inquiries on your specific situation by email: [email protected].

    Applications for the program can also be made over email, by region. View application.

  • If we have team members on the Work-Share program, but we end up having to lay them off completely, will being on the Work-Share program impact their EI benefits and the duration of being on EI?

    WS participation normally would not impact the benefit rate and the normal duration of an EI claim if an employee is laid off during the work-share agreement, or at its end.

    WS benefits are not regular benefits, so WS participation doesn’t exhaust any employee entitlement to regular or special EI benefits if only WS benefits were paid. Also, EI employee benefits are based on the employee’s original ROE, not on the WS hours. 

  • How do I approach cyber insurance and risk management?

    Retailers may wish to consider cyber insurance, or to assess their current coverage if they already have it. The cyber insurance market is evolving rapidly.

    If you choose to improve your cyber maturity during this period, be aware that sensitive communications on cyber risk might be subject to disclosure requirements in regulatory investigations and litigation if a cyber incident occurs. Consider implementing a legal privilege strategy as you navigate cyber risk management so that your communications are privileged, where appropriate. View more information and links to Canadian COVID-19 fraud and cybersecurity guidance.

  • I am a retailer but have restaurant seating, so am following regional contact tracing requirements to capture contact information from seated diner groups. Any best practice tips?

    • Generally, collect as little information as possible and keep it for as short a time as possible. Read the order closely. If it says something like, ‘Gather name and phone number from one person per party,” take only that.
    • Store the contact information you collect somewhere secure. ‘Analogue’ methods include writing the information in a book and storing that book behind lock and key overnight. If you choose to use a digital method of collection and storage, such as a reservation app, do some quick research to understand more about how this third party will treat your customer information: will they keep it safe without using it for additional purposes? (Generally, retailers can still be held accountable for what happens to personal information that they collect and then share with other companies).
    • Delete the information after the required time period
    • If someone asks you for this information for contact tracing purposes, make sure you get some evidence from them that they are from a public health authority with the power to make this request. If and when you do share information you’ve collected, it’s wise to document why you did so and who you shared it with. There are privacy regulators empowered to make inquiries if someone complains that you mishandled their personal information, in which case having records and demonstrating good practice could help you.

  • If I have an employee who is diagnosed with COVID-19, what do I do?

    • 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. 
    • Any disclosure to other employees must respect privacy legislation and be done in accordance with advice from the public health unit.
    • Best practices are evolving. At minimum, restrict access to area(s) the employee worked and comprehensively disinfect the premises. 
    • Continue to practice physical distancing, regular handwashing and other regularly prescribed COVID-19 mitigation protocols
    • 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. 

    RCC has an incident checklist for retailers dealing with a positive COVID-19 case. View checklist.

  • What are the limits in different regions for the number of people inside a retail store at any one time?

    Generally, physical distancing limits apply to retail stores. A minimum of 2 square meters of physical distancing between people is often the requirement or guideline. See “Maximum number of People in store” in RCC’s COVID-19 Requirements for Retailers guide.

  • Can retailers screen customers at the door for entry, e.g. with temperature testing?

    Individual screening, such as temperature testing, is technically permissible, yet must be approached very carefully. Be aware that government guidance in this area is sparse yet rapidly evolving. First, avoid any impression of screening customers for any reason beyond a belief that the customer may be exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. Second, if it is felt that temperature testing is advantageous, take great care to do so in accordance with Canadian privacy principles, e.g. be mindful of consent and of limiting and protecting the personal information that is obtained and shared. Also, staff taking customer temperatures must continue to follow the usual care in observing 2 meter physical distancing limits and other health precautions.

  • My employee is invoking their “right to refuse” unsafe work – what do I do?

    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.

  • What can I do as a retailer to create the safest possible COVID-19 work environment for my employees? What safety measures must/should I put in place for my employees?

    For more detail, RCC SOPs on workplace safety can be found here.

    • 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. Inform customers that customer packaging (e.g. containers, reusable bags, or boxes) will not be handled by workers.  
    • Post signs at each check out indicating no customer packaging is to be used or placed on checkout counters.
    • 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 cues that support physical distancing.
    • Place 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.
    • Monitor 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.
    • 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.
    • Consider signage urging customers to maintain in-store physical distancing and to not enter a store if they have a cold or flu-like symptoms.

  • Who can enforce physical distancing rules in a retail setting?

    Various authorities can enforce these rules. RCC is working with governments to clarify and harmonize how the rules are enforced.

  • What are the obligations of my employees?

    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, follow 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. RCC SOPs on workplace safety can be found here.

  • How long do I leave returned products aside before I can safely re-sell them?

    Best practice on how long to keep returned items before offering them for re-sale is still evolving. Suggested time periods tend to vary from 24 hours to 72 hours and are influenced by several factors including product type. Regional government policies on return specifics also vary. Check the Returns section of RCC’s regional resources where your stores are located. View resources.

  • Is there a health and safety risk presented by the handling of cash money or credit cards?

    The Bank of Canada has advocated for retailers to continue to accept cash to ensure Canadians can have access to the goods and services they need, particularly for 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 that they avoid touching their faces. “Tap” contactless payments are encouraged wherever possible.

  • My employees do not wish to return to work in my store, but I need them now. What do I do?

    In general, a refusal to return to work is deemed to be quitting one’s job. Employers are empowered to treat an employee’s refusal that way, although it would be best to first see if there are special circumstances influencing an employee’s refusal to return (e.g.: is the employee a caregiver? Are they at high risk for COVID-19)? If special circumstances do exist, explore how the employee can be accommodated within the workplace. Whatever you decide in the end, document your exchanges about accommodation and keep them on file.

  • Are employees whose hours have been reduced as a result of COVID-19 eligible for any benefit programs?  

    Yes. As an employer, consider looking into the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy. The CEWS could help cover their costs to you. As individuals, your employees can look into federal individual income support programs. Try to avoid a situation in which employees whose jobs are subsidized by the CEWS through you, the employer, are also receiving federal income support personally. Some of that money may need to be paid back.

    EI Work-Share is another option: employers can reduce hours while employees receive EI benefits. This requires an agreement between the employer, a group of at least 2 employees and Service Canada.

    Some regional governments have also released COVID-19 relief measures for individuals, including sometimes for workers. These vary by region and include one-time payments to individuals and changes to employment law regimes. For more information, see RCC’s CEWS overview.

  • What types of disinfectants are required for changerooms?

    A list of Health Canada-approved disinfectants can be found here

  • When we reopen, are there any requirements as to how I recall staff? I’m assuming that I will be bringing back staff in phases, as business ramps up. Do I have to call people with seniority back first? Full time before part time? Or can I just call back whoever I think I need to operate best?

    It’s important to review your staff contracts.  Unless you have a collective agreement that speaks to this (especially seniority) in a unionized setting, then you would be able to choose who to bring back and in what order.

  • Can I require a doctor’s note if an employee says they have COVID-19 or related symptoms?

    Doctor’s note requirements for these kinds of sick leaves vary by region. Regional requirements are listed below in brief.

    BC: During the declared COVID-19 emergency, BC’s Provincial Health Officer told employers that they should excuse workers for sickness without requiring a doctor’s note.  

    Alberta: No doctor’s note required. 

    Saskatchewan: No doctor’s note required 

    Manitoba: No doctor’s note required. 

    Quebec: Employers can still ask for a doctor’s note.  

    Ontario: No doctor’s note required. 

    NS: No doctor’s note required.   

    NB: Employer can require a doctor’s note.  

    PEI: No doctor’s note required.  

    Nfld and Lab: Employee must provide employer with evidence that is reasonable in the circumstances for needing to take the leave, but the employer cannot require a doctor’s note. 

  • What are retail best practices for gathering and sharing personal health information in response to COVID-19?

    The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) has released general COVID-19 guidance on privacy obligations in information-sharing situations during the pandemic. The OPC guidance also includes links to regional privacy regulators’ resources. This is helpful if you are trying to decide how much of someone’s personal information to collect, e.g.: if they are sick or you think they might be, and when to share their information with another organization.

    Even during the pandemic response, normal privacy laws apply unless emergency legislation provides otherwise.

    PIPEDA, which applies to many retailers, only allows you to collect, use or disclose personal information based on meaningful consent and for purposes that a reasonable person would consider appropriate in the circumstances. Generally, exceptions apply when (1) a person is critically ill, (2) where a public health authority with legislative authority to request the information is asking (it’s key to check if they’re actually authorized to ask you) , and if (3) you think someone is breaking a quarantine order. View OPC guidance.

  • I am not sure what code to put in ROEs for employees whose loss of work is connected to COVID-19. Can you provide clarity?

    Generally, if shortage of work is why you are laying them off, i.e. 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). If the employee refuses to come to work but is not sick or quarantined, use code E (Quit) or code N (Leave of absence), as appropriate. To expedite processing, do not add comments.

    For more Q&As specifically on ROE coding and other payroll questions arising from COVID-19, see COVID-19 Canadian Payroll Association guidance.

  • What government support is available for retail businesses?

    The federal government has announced a series of financial relief measures for businesses affected by COVID-19. These include tax deferrals and wage subsidies for employers, benefits for individuals out of work due to COVID-19 and easier avenues to credit for business. 

    Provincial governments have also introduced various forms of financial relief. These vary by region.

    For comprehensive information on each jurisdiction, see RCC’s Relief Measures by Region.

  • What is the Federal government offering in terms of wage subsidies for retailers?

    The federal government has established the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) to help employers keep staff on payroll despite revenue declines caused by COVID-19.  

    CEWS support takes the form of a government subsidy based on specific criteria. First established in the early stages of the pandemic, the CEWS program has undergone various developments.

    View RCC’s CEWS overview.

  • What are a retailer’s rights to deny entry to someone refusing to wear a mask?

    • Laws vary from province to province. On a broad basis, retailers are required to make best efforts to ensure that people are wearing a mask when entering a retail environment. In Quebec specifically it is prohibited for a retailer to allow a person into the store who is not wearing a face covering – law enforcement is to be contacted if there is a problem. 
    • Retailers are not required to deny access to someone refusing to wear a mask.
    • Retailers can control entry into their premises in a way that is reasonable and not discriminatory.
    • In addition to legal obligations, public relations and customer relations considerations should be thought through.

  • Employees are experiencing very chapped hands because of all the extra handwashing they are doing to combat the spread of COVID-19. Without asking them to wash their hands less, what can we do?

    Regular handwashing is necessary and must be continued.  However, people can wash their hands with warm water, instead of very hot water, and they can apply hand lotion afterwards.  With many people also taking the precaution of wearing gloves at work, hand washing in warm water at home and applying moisturizer then is also especially helpful.

  • How can retailers help reinforce mask wearing in their stores while keeping their employees safe?

    • Clearly communicate the need to wear a mask in store via all means including your website, social media and in store signage. 
    • Indicate how your business can accommodate customers who cannot wear a mask (e.g. curbside pickup).
    • Have a policy prepared in the event of an escalated situation so that staff know how to handle the situation.
    • Politely ask the customer to reconsider wearing a mask if they are refusing to do so. 
    • If the customer continues to refuse to wear a mask, you can let them into the store in order to reduce the risk of a further conflict. 
    • Retailers should be mindful that there may not be a viable legal defence to protect them in the event of a physical altercation (e.g. a defence of necessity or avoidance of greater harm).   
    • If a physical altercation ensues, law enforcement should be called immediately.

  • Given the uncertainties of COVID-19, is an estimate of anticipated percent reduction of work hours acceptable?

    Yes, an estimate is fine.

  • What is being done to ensure better access to credit for mid-size and large retailers?

    The federal Business Credit Availability Program (BCAP) and the Large Employer Emergency Financing Facility (LEEFF) provide eligible mid-size and large retailers with government-backed credit solutions. For more information on BCAP and LEEFF, see the federal government’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan, the BDC and the EDC. Interested retailers should speak to their banks. 

  • As a retailer, would I need a Medical Device Establishment Licence (MDEL) to sell masks?

    A retailer would not require an MDEL to sell to the public. However, if they sell masks to a hospital or health care facility, they would be considered a medical device distributor and would require an MDEL.

  • What happens if an employee on a work-share needs to go into quarantine or self-isolation – how does that affect others in a work-share?

    If they have to go into quarantine or self-isolation, their status would change to sick, they would receive sick benefits and others in the unit would have to pick up the extra work.

  • I am receiving CERB payments but am worried I might have to pay them back. What do I have to look out for?

    There are several circumstances in which individuals may have to pay back their CERB payments. These include:

    • If you return to work earlier than you expected, or you receive retroactive pay from your employer.
      • Mainly, if your employer is paying you by receiving the federal Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), you are not supposed to receive the CERB for the same time period.
    • If you applied for the CERB but later realized you were not eligible.
    • If you received a payment from both Service Canada and the CRA for the same period.  

    The Canada Revenue Agency is encouraging people who need to repay their CERB to do so by December 31, 2020. View more information.

  • What do I do if I am asked to share someone’s health information with a public health authority to help deal with the COVID-19 pandemic?

    Retailers may receive requests from other organizations to share information that would identify an individual. Few circumstances legally require a private company to share someone’s health information with the government.

    Before you share any information, verify whether the organization, e.g. a health authority, has a legal basis for requesting it, or if they are just asking you to cooperate.

    If you do share a person’s information, assess the request carefully. Taking care what information you release, why, and to whom will help you reduce regulatory, litigation and reputational risk.

    Whether you are legally required to share someone’s personal information or not, documenting how you analyzed privacy considerations in the process of deciding to share that information would be wise. Privacy principles such as accountability, transparency, consent and limiting data collection and sharing still apply. View more legal information

  • It’s hard to find PPE (personal protective equipment). Where can I find items like hand sanitizer and masks?

    RCC has a Retail Supplier Directory and will be continually adding more PPE suppliers.

    Some regions have set up provincial PPE supplier directories which you can view in RCC’s chart here.

  • Should I apply for business interruption insurance coverage due to effects of COVID-19 on my retail store(s)?

    Yes, you should apply if your stores are closed or have otherwise been significantly affected by COVID-19. For example, even if an anchor tenant in your shopping centre has closed due to COVID-19 and it affects you, apply. Recent case law is evolving on insurance coverage in this area. It is wise to give your insurance company notice now by applying for coverage, so as not to preclude yourself unintentionally from potential benefits later, even if you anticipate a denial of coverage at this time.

  • What is EI Work-Share?

    EI Work-Share is a program to help employers and employees through tough times by allowing employers to have staff on reduced hours while the staff (there must be a minimum of 2 employees in a work share unit) 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 (i.e. of EI Work-Share agreements under COVID-19 special measures) has been doubled to over a year (76 weeks).

  • What is being done to ensure that where there may be product shortages, e.g. for hand sanitizer, alternative brands can be sourced?

    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.

  • If features are added to the mask such as a valve, filter, or wire around the nose would that change anything about my ability to sell the masks?

    Adding any extra features would not necessarily change the requirements. A retailer would still need to ensure the product is clearly labelled that it is not intended for medical use and not pose a danger to human health or safety.

  • What regulations should I be aware of if I want to sell non-medical masks in Canada? Are there any specific Health Canada regulatory safety requirements for “fashion face masks/covers”?

    There are no regulations specific to a fashion face covering or mask. However, it’s important to know that masks are assumed to be medical devices unless it is explicitly clear on the labelling that they are not intended for medical use. Additionally, the same regulations that would apply to any product being sold in Canada are still applicable. View Regulatory requirements for non-medical masks/fashion face coverings more info.

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