Sporting goods chain Sportland launched major sales on Wednesday, attracting huge crowds to their stores. Following the resulting backlash, however, the retail chain closed its doors early and its stores remained closed on Thursday as well, the last day shopping center stores are permitted to be open before Friday's nationwide closures.
The company posted an ad on Facebook on Wednesday stating that all of its products were marked down 50 percent through this weekend, and that sales prices applied both online and in stores.
This prompted people to flock to Sportland stores, including at Lõunakeskus Shopping Center in Tartu, where photos to circulate on social media showed a crowded store, people pressed closely together and not obeying the required distance of two meters between them; even a baby carriage was spotted among the crowd. None of the sales associates were wearing protective masks.
As news of the crowds spread, the backlash quickly escalated to attacks addressed to Sportland management. Company leaders thereafter made the call to close their stores, and keep them closed on Thursday as well.
Sportland's managing director Gerd Kiili declined to say whose decision it was to extend the promoted sales to the chain's brick-and-mortar stores or why.
"Excuses won't do anything; they won't change what happened," Kiili said. "We have always stood up for Estonians. We have to take clear responsibility for this; the public demands it."
He stressed that the company respects all implemented rules and will do everything it can to ensure that nothing similar happens again. "The way things panned out today, it's as though we weren't listening," Kiili said. "The only thing that will help is a sincere apology."
The managing director was nonetheless surprised to see that such big crowds turned up at Sportland stores.
"People have actually been surprisingly reasonable," he commented. "There aren't many cars out, there aren't people in the streets. But at the end of the day, they still showed up at the store."
Kiili promised that Sportland would issue an apology on its Facebook page, from which users' angry comments have continued to be deleted.
Health Board doesn't decide sanctions
According to Health Board crisis team member Merilin Vernik, whether or not Sportland would face any sanctions on top of the criticism of the social affairs minister would not be up to the Health Board, but rather Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center), the person in charge of the emergency situation.
"The Health Board's hands are tied; these orders come from above," Vernik said.
She noted that the government would likely seek advice from the Health Board prior to deciding on any sort of sanctions, but have not yet done so. She was unable to say, however, what advice the Health Board might give.
"As this is such a new situation, this came very unexpectedly for everyone yesterday," Vernik said. "Something is surely being discussed already. We will likely receive a query soon regarding what we think of it."
The Health Board also lacks information regarding what measures can be taken to punish a legal person for violating an emergency situation.
Speaking at a government press conference, the prime minister called on traders to avoid organizing sales with which to tempt people into stores right now.
"It's not the right time for sales, whether it's 5 percent or 10 percent or 50 percent off," Ratas said. "You yourselves have to understand that you are attracting people to your stores."
He stressed that it is store managers that are responsible for ensuring that shoppers maintain the required minimum two-meter distance between each other, and that they do not enter the store in groups of more than two.
"The police is checking this, and the state will also be punishing in cases where these rules are not followed," Ratas said. "But we are each personally responsible as well. Now is not the time to put up ads saying, 'Come to my store! You can get very cheap goods here!' I am also asking that people not go shopping because of such ads either. This poses a direct risk of spreading the virus."
Editor: Aili Vahtla