The head of a business group says lockdown loopholes are emerging as parts of the country step up restrictions to combat COVID-19, allowing some stores to remain open while similar retailers are forced to close.

Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said only select retailers deemed essential were permitted to remain open during the first wave of lockdowns last spring.

While efforts to expand the definition of an essential retailer or product have helped keep more stores open now, he said most of the retailers that have benefited are bigger stores.

Kelly said the outcome is an uneven playing field, where a smaller, independent bookshop that only sells books is forced to close, for example, while a larger chain that also sells books is open for business.

But Diane Brisebois, Retail Council of Canada president and CEO, said the suggestion that lockdowns only hurt small retailers is a "false narrative."

She said increased restrictions tend to hurt certain retail categories, regardless of size.

Brisebois said the bigger issue right now is the widespread confusion for both retailers and consumers about what the rules are.

She said the lack of clear, harmonized rules -- even within the same province -- is leaving shoppers unsure about what's open or closed.

For retailers, Brisebois said many have invested heavily in creating safe and healthy environments for workers and customers.

"They're frustrated because they've made those investments, they've enforced mask-wearing and hand sanitizing, and now they're being forced to close," she said.

Brisebois said even businesses that remain open but are operating at a reduced capacity are losing income and facing mounting bills.

More regions in the Toronto area entered the COVID-19 red zone on Monday, joining others parts of the country that have ordered tighter restrictions and closures to stop the spread of the virus.

Last week, the Manitoba government shut down large parts of its economy, including non-essential retail outlets.