TORONTO -- Premier Doug Ford says he knows “it's not fair” that non-essential businesses had to close their doors while big box stores could stay open amid the COVID-19 lockdown in Toronto and Peel Region.

During the government’s daily announcement on Wednesday, Ford, along with Health Minister Christine Elliott, answered questions from the media about an open letter sent by a group of retailers asking for the government to allow non-essential businesses to reopen.

Ford said he has to follow the advice of the province’s chief medical officer of health and has to keep non-essential stores temporarily closed for the safety of Ontarians.

“[If] I put my business hat on I’d switch those things open in a heartbeat but I can’t. I have to listen to the health experts. It’s proven, it works, and that’s how we’ve been able to move forward this whole time. I’m a business person. I don’t want to close these down but health trumps my personal belief of doing something,” Ford said.

In the letter, which was signed by about 50 retailers, they argue that “segregating ‘non-essential’ retailers from those deemed essential might actually be making things worse.”

“Instead, it [the lockdown] has funneled those shoppers and the corresponding health risk into fewer, increasingly crowded stores within Toronto and Peel, as well as adjacent communities, such as we saw in Vaughan and Markham over the weekend. This potentially creates greater health risk,” the letter reads.

In addition, the retailers say that big box stores are benefiting from increased demand while many small businesses had to close even though they sell many of the same products. As a result, many of these businesses are forced to lay off employees in what is the busiest shopping time of the year.

Instead, the retailers ask that the government immediately reopen all retail in the province and impose a 25 per cent capacity limit on non-essential businesses in lockdown regions.

“This will put fewer people in more stores, increasing safety for all. The current policy does the opposite,” the letter reads. “Capacity restrictions backed by strong social distancing and other safety measures already in place will deliver better health outcomes in a way that is effective, fair, saves jobs and supports local businesses and families.”

Ford noted that the decision to close non-essential businesses was made to reduce the amount of people in one setting at the same time, and as a result, decrease the risk of transmission.

“If you’re going to the big box retailer, it’s kind of the one-stop shop, and I know it’s not fair believe me. I know it’s not fair but it really limits people from going out and making four or five, six stops on the way home to pick stuff up,” he said.

Elliott reiterated that Ontarians must only leave their homes for essential services or to purchase essential goods.

“With respect to the big box stores we’re hopeful that people will go in there for essential goods. That’s the reason why they’re open. For the pharmacies and some of the grocery sections that many of the big box stores have,” she said.

Ford added that federal and provincial financial support are available to assist small businesses and that residents should shop local to help them as well.

“Go online, shop online, order meals online. Do everything you can online and not with the big online retailers,” he said.

Toronto and Peel Region entered a 28-day lockdown on Nov. 23 under the provincial government’s COVID-19 response framework.

The lockdown forced the closure of non-essential businesses, indoor dining, gyms and movie theatres to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus in those hot spots.

On Wednesday, the province logged 1,723 new cases of the virus, with 410 in Toronto and 500 in Peel.

Another 35 fatalities were also recorded on Wednesday, marking a tie for the highest single-day death toll since the beginning of the second wave of the pandemic.