Retail bosses: Restrictions fair, but congestion coming week-day evenings

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Shopper at a Prisma store. Photo is illustrative. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Retail leaders and associations have said that while some aspects of the latest government restrictions have caused some head scratching, in general, the measures are reasonable, in some ways less far-reaching than those issued in last spring, and should not severely impact the sector as things stand, though they may lead to a crush of customers on work-day evenings.

Shopping mall, store and other entrepreneurs must ensure that no more than six people are in a 100-square-meter retail space, ERR's online news in Estonian reports.

Guido Pärnits, the head of the Ülemiste mall in Tallinn, said that in principle this was the best option available at the moment.

Pärnits said: "I think that this is one of the fairest and wisest decisions for this whole situation, rather than closing everything. Otherwise, it would be the case that more and more people would gather in those shops that are open."

At the same time, Pärnits said he did not fully understand the government's decision, which follows a move last week to require malls to turn off their WiFi connection (so as to discourage people from congregating) and to check compliance with mask-wearing; Pärnits said that the virus was not one peculiar to malls.

He said: "The coronavirus is not a disease of shopping centers, because such spaces are relatively large and at the moment see a sparse volume of public. In fact, the greatest risk of spreading the virus - after night spots - is the education system."

Association chief: Main plus is that stores can still open week-days

Nele Peil, the head of the an association representing retailers, said that in economic terms, entrepreneurs are happy to have the opportunity to keep the shops open at least on business days. During the March-May emergency situation last year, malls were closed other than for essential service providers such as bank offices and pharmacies.

At the same time, this means that for working people, only a short window of time for shopping is available after they finish work on weekdays and before the stores close, meaning more people will congregate at that time.

Peil said: "If you look at it from a health perspective, if all the stores are closed at the weekend, the [working] public are confined to shopping for a relatively short period of time after work."

"The more trading time there is, the easier it is for people to disperse both in time and space," she added.

The 25-percent occupancy ceiling of any store is not an issue for larger malls, Guido Pärnits reiterated – for a 100-square-meter retail space this equates to six people – with the only issue being ensuring there are no congestion points inside a store.

Malls can fully work during week, all non-essential stores must close at weekends

Meanwhile, stores are fully closed, save for those selling essential items like food and pharmaceuticals, or those with a drive-in option. As last spring, pet stores are also open to staff, to care for the livestock, but unlike last spring, all non-essential stores are closed at weekends, not only in malls.

Retail chiefs have also queried the lack of clarity on mask-wearing, now enforced in stores with free, temporary masks doled out to shoppers without one, but a requirement since November last year.

Guido Pärnits said that it had not been an obligation, but rather a recommendation, until now.

He said: "There has never been such an obligation - to wear a mask in public spaces," Pärnits said.

"There was just a strong recommendation. It has never carried with it the force of law, or regulation or obligation," he added.

Fining those without a mask has been very difficult so far, he added. In fact only the Health Board has this authority, he said; while security guards in malls, Tallinn municipal police on public transport in the capital, and the regular police themselves, can check mask-wearing compliance, they cannot issue fines to violators.

Legal positions still not clear

The legal question is still in the air, Pärnits thought.

He said: "Certainly there are many lawyers who will work on the matter. But in principle, it should be the case that, just as a traffic offender can be fined, so can other violators of agreed rules."

Nele Peil said it is also not clear who is responsible for ensuring the occupancy limit and whether business would be fined if this level was exceeded.

Personal responsibility in this and mask-wearing was also required, she said; for smaller stores in her organization – the Estonian Traders' Association (Kaupmeeste liit) – had no agreement in place across the board.

Peil said: "Some of our members have stated that they will not serve unmasked people whatsoever, others have said that they will not be able to ensure the safety of their employees if a customer becomes aggressive [when being instructed to don a mask]."

Guido Pärnits also said that vaccinations should be made mandatory, noting that the vaccines were not the same as an ordinary flu jab.

Minister: Support measures coming

Entrepreneurship minister Andres Sutt (Reform) says that support measures will be forthcoming for retailers hit by the new regulations, primarily in the form of wage support via the Unemployment Insurance Fund (Töötukassa – a measure which was installed last spring to summer – ed.) with the time-frame likely to be a month, as things stand.

Nele Peil said that this would help, given the proportion of business costs which go on wages, while discussions were ongoing on rental support, as was also provided last spring, and also loan repayment holidays.

Guido Pärnits said that while the support package could do with being a wider net than that cast so far, many stores may not be hit too hard by the restrictions as they currently stand, particularly in malls and given that work-days would still see malls open.

"The concentration of people on business days is rising in shopping malls, and in any case still makes up 90 percent of their turnover," he said. 

"And in that sense, I agree with [prime minister] Kaja Kallas that in a crisis situation, every individual and every firm must be willing to contribute a little. The idea of the government shouldering the burden of all the financial losses is perhaps far-fetched," he added.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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