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 considered an essential or non-essential service can vary slightly across different provinces and territories.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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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The Alberta government defines an essential service as a public service that, if interrupted, would “endanger the life, personal safety or health of the public.”

These services are also necessary to the “maintenance and administration of the rule of law and public security.”

The government of Alberta also declared a state of emergency in response to COVID-19, banning mass gatherings of more than 50 people.

Albertans are prohibited from attending all public recreation facilities and private entertainment facilities, including:

  • Gyms, swimming pools and arenas
  • Science centres, museums and art galleries
  • Libraries, community centres, children’s play centres and bowling alleys
  • Casinos, racing entertainment centres and bingo halls

The 50-person limit does not apply to essential services, such as:

  • Grocery stores
  • Shopping centres
  • Stand-alone retail stores
  • Health-care facilities
  • Airports
  • The legislature
  • Other essential services

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Bars and nightclubs are closed, but restaurants remain open. They must follow the 50-person rule at all times.

For a full list, click here.


Saskatchewan went into a state of emergency on March 18.

For restaurants, bars and event venues, the province noted each space must limit seating to 50 per cent capacity or up to a maximum of 50 people. Licensed restaurants and taverns can still sell alcohol but as an “off sale.”

Grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations are still considered essential services.

Non-essential services include gyms, casinos, bingo halls and fitness centres.

For more information, click here.

British Columbia

The government of British Columbia declared a state of emergency on March 18. Gatherings with more than 50 people have been prohibited in the province.

Restaurant takeout and delivery services remain open. Restaurants are also permitted to serve alcohol with the purchase of a meal.

At this time, liquor stores remain open with limited hours, and cannabis stores remain open. Online orders must be picked up at the post office.

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BC Parks has suspended service and closed facilities in most provincial parks, and ferries are also operating at reduced capacity.

Bars, pubs and nightclubs have been ordered closed.

For more information, click here.

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Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia declared a public state of emergency on March 22 after residents avoided following social-distancing guidelines.

During the press conference, the province said that as of Monday, essential services include grocery stores, gas stations and pharmacies, as well as gatherings at construction sites. Health-care services, criminal justice services and law enforcement will remain in operation.

Any office building or business considered “non-essential” could also remain open as long as it followed the two-metre distance rule.

These businesses must also be disinfected and cleaned at least twice a day.

For more information, click here.

Prince Edward Island

In Prince Edward Island, the province notes essential services include those “that the interruption of which would endanger the life, health or personal safety of the whole or part of the population.”

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For food, this means grocery stores, restaurants offering takeout, food banks and convenience stores.

For health, this includes emergency dental care, emergency optometry services, pharmacies and selected physical and occupational therapy settings, depending on the client.

READ MORE: Employer still not letting you work from home? How to navigate coronavirus office upheaval

For cities, essential services include police stations, hardware stores, banks, auto repair shops, garbage collection, gas stations, hotels and motels, pet stores, public transit and more.

For non-essential services, the province includes casinos, museums, gyms, salons and spas, shopping malls (unless they offer essential services), tattoo studios, concert venues and more.

For a full list of services, click here.

New Brunswick

New Brunswick declared a state of emergency on March 19, ordering any non-essential services to close.

Restaurants remain open but only to serve takeout or delivery options to patrons.

Bars and clubs have been ordered closed, as well as fitness centres, cinemas, pool halls, salons, museums and zoos.

Grocery stores, pharmacies, post offices, gas stations and banks remain open, as do liquor and cannabis stores.

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For a full list, click here.

Newfoundland and Labrador

Newfoundland and Labrador has declared a public health emergency, ordering anyone crossing its borders to self-isolate for two weeks — even if they’re coming from another Canadian province.

Those entering will receive forms with more information on the requirement to self-isolate.

The province hasn’t declared a formal state of emergency, but Health Minister John Haggie said it’s something the government will consider if it finds itself unable to use existing health legislation to take the measures it deems necessary to stop COVID-19.

For more information, click here.

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The government of Yukon has declared a public health emergency in relation to COVID-19. The territory reported its first confirmed cases of the new coronavirus on March 22.

The declaration means classes are suspended until April 15, and all indoor public recreation facilities and libraries will be closed. Hospitals are also closed to visitors, with some exceptions.

Yukon’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Brendan Hanley, has recommended against non-essential travel into and out of Yukon. Hanley says everyone who comes to the territory from outside Yukon is required to self-isolate for 14 days, even if they didn’t travel outside Canada.

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The territory is also banning social gatherings of more than 10 people.

For more information, click here.

Northwest Territories

On March 21, the government of the Northwest Territories banned non-essential travel in and out of the region. Residents returning to the territory are being asked to self-isolate in Yellowknife, Fort Smith, Hay River or Inuvik.

As of Monday, the territory had one confirmed case of COVID-19.

The territory’s chief public health officer has also advised that all gatherings, regardless of the size, should be cancelled.

For more information, click here.


On March 18, Nunavut’s health minister declared a public health emergency. The territory has no confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Public gatherings of any size are prohibited, and playgrounds and municipal parks have been ordered closed. Bars have been ordered closed, and restaurants have been limited to takeout only, with no more than 10 people in a line.

READ MORE: Coronavirus closed your gym. Here’s how to stay fit — at a distance

Taxis are limited to one pickup per fare. Typically, according to APTN, Nunavut taxi drivers are permitted to service more than one customer at a time.

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People arriving from outside of Nunavut are being told to self-isolate for a “mandatory” 14 days upon arrival, and non-essential visitors have been asked to stay out of the region.

For more information, click here.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

— With files from the Canadian Press and Global News’ Ryan Rocca and Kalina LaFramboise

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