What is an essential service? After groceries, it depends where you live in Canada

In response to widespread concerns over the novel coronavirus pandemic, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Quebec Premier François Legault have ordered the closure of all non-essential workplaces in both provinces.

The orders are to take effect Tuesday at 11:59 p.m. and will last for two weeks in Ontario and three weeks in Quebec.

The Ontario government released a list of businesses permitted to stay open, but what’s consdiered an essential or non-essential service can vary slightly across different provinces and territories.

“For the purposes of this order, businesses include any for-profit, non-profit or other entity providing the goods and services described herein,” the Ontario government explained.

“This does not preclude the provision of work and services by entities not on this list either online, by telephone or by mail/delivery.”

The federal government defines essential workers as “critical to preserving life, health and basic societal functioning.”

This includes, but isn’t limited to:

  • First responders
  • Health-care workers
  • Critical infrastructure workers
  • Hydro and natural gas workers
  • Workers who are essential to supplying society with critical goods, such as food and medicine

It’s important to note that what is considered essential and non-essential is slightly different in each province and territory. Most jurisdictions also have legislation that allows officials to amend the list of what is considered non-essential, depending on the situation.

Here’s what is currently considered essential in each province and territory:


For the purposes of the current state of emergency relating to COVID-19, the government of Ontario has deemed the following services essential:

  • Grocery stores, supermarkets, convenience stores and similar markets will remain open. Any store that sells human or pet food is deemed essential.
  • Beer, wine and liquor stores and alcohol producers, as well as cannabis stores and cannabis producers, will be open.
  • Gas stations, pharmacies, restaurant takeout facilities and food delivery services will also be open.

For a full list, click here.


On Tuesday at 11:59 p.m., the Quebec government will shut down all “non-essential services and economic activities.”

Only grocery stores, drugstores and service stations will remain open. Restaurant takeout and delivery services also remain open, as well as drive-thru services.

Non-essential services in the province include libraries, bars and clubs, salons, barbershops, skating rinks, restaurant dining rooms, gyms, some malls and other businesses. Places of worship should also be suspended unless they are essential, the province added.

The province’s cannabis retailer, SQDC, and liquor retailer, SAQ, will stay open but will have limited customers.

For a full list, click here.


In Manitoba, an essential service is defined as necessary to enable the government to prevent “danger to life, health or safety; the destruction or serious deterioration of machinery, equipment or premises; serious environmental damage; or disruption of the administration of the courts or of legislative drafting.”

The government of Manitoba declared a state of emergency related to COVID-19 on March 21.

As part of the order, gatherings of more than 50 people were banned, including at places of worship, weddings and funerals. However, this does not apply to facilities where “health care or social services are provided.”

Retail businesses, including grocery or food stores, shopping centres, pharmacies and gas stations, remain open.

Bingo and gaming centres are closed, as well as wellness centres offering physical activities, gyms, fitness centres and athletic clubs and training facilities.

For more information, click here.

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