HALIFAX -- In less than 24 months, Hannah Kovacs temporarily closed her gym Move East three times.

She launched fitness classes online, organized outdoor workouts, developed ever-changing COVID-19 procedures and offered promotions to reward loyal members and attract new ones.

But now she's had enough.

The 30-year-old owner of the Nova Scotia boutique fitness studio says unfair and contradictory provincial restrictions continue to hamstring her small, independent business -- one that was only a few months old when the pandemic hit and thus excluded from most government support programs.

"There's no way of sugar-coating it. On paper, we technically should not still be in business," saidKovacs, a former competitive soccer player who got her fitness certification in Toronto and returned to her hometown of Halifax to launch the business.

"I've often felt like I'm screaming underwater and no one can hear me."

Her experience underscores the enduring impact of government restrictions on small businesses across much of Canada.

Kovacs said she feels "cautiously optimistic" about Nova Scotia's plans to lift all COVID-19 restrictions by March 21.

But she still worries the province could reinstate the same rules if infections rise or a new variant emerges.

"Can we take what we've learned from the past two years to make policies that aren't devastating for small businesses," she said. "We need to find a new way forward."

Small business owners across Canada fear they could face renewed restrictions with each potential new wave of COVID-19.

Another round of lockdowns in year three of the pandemic could thwart last-ditch attempts by some entrepreneurs to stage a comeback after years of closures, debt and repeat layoffs.

"We can't be asked to sacrifice and take on more debt again," Kovacs said.

The Nova Scotia government has gradually lifted capacity rules on businesses in recent weeks. But ongoing physical distancing requirements have left some smaller businesses stuck at a lower limit for now.

Gyms in the province, for example, can now operate at 75 per cent capacity.

But the need to maintain two metres between people leaves smaller studios like Move East stuck at around half-capacity, since clients would be too close together with more people.

Restaurants in Nova Scotia were initially subject to the same physical distancing rules, but the province later eased the requirement. Instead, the province suggests restaurants maintain two metres between tables "as much as possible."

"You start to feel like almost gaslit by the government," Kovacs said. "They're signalling that physical distancing doesn't apply to restaurants anymore but we're still stuck with these rules for another month.

"The rules have started to seem increasingly arbitrary and contradictory."

Health Department spokeswoman Marla MacInnis said the government updated the physical distancing rules for restaurants following consultation with the industry.

But she said gyms are still required to maintain physical distancing at this time.

"We know that physical activity can increase the force of respiratory particles from your lungs which is where the COVID virus lives," MacInnis said in an email.

"Distancing in gyms minimizes the risk of the virus spreading in these settings."

The government hasn't shared any research with the fitness industry that helps support the rules for her business, Kovacs said.

"I am a strong supporter of public health measures. We are rule followers," she said. "Exercising unmasked is definitely a higher risk activity. But is it responsible for increased rates of transmission and outbreaks and hospitalizations? I have not seen any data around that."

The ongoing restrictions appear to have a particularly detrimental impact on small, independent businesses.

Advocates say many business owners have made costly investments in everything from industrial disinfectant sprayers to new air purification systems, only to face severe restrictions each time case counts rise.

Despite optimism of reopening plans, small businesses remain concerned about a potential fresh round of restrictions.

"We can't keep on slamming the brakes on businesses and their operations," said Louis-Philippe Gauthier, senior director of legislative affairs with the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses in Atlantic Canada.

"Capacity restrictions are just choking off businesses."

As restrictions lift, Gauthier said it will take time to rebuild consumer confidence. Another round of lockdowns would decimate the hard-won gains of small businesses.

"We need to find other solutions and apply new ways of dealing with this if cases rise," he said. "We're going to have some more real casualties in the business world if we keep pumping the brakes on and off."

Kovacs said she's trying to remain positive and hopeful about the future.

But after nearly two years of public health messaging telling people to stay home, she said it would be helpful if the government could underscore the importance of staying active.

"It has wonderful impacts on one's physical health and mental health. That should be part of the conversation and any policy decisions going forward."