Ottawa business coalition demanding province justify closures

A coalition representing more than 6,200 businesses in Ottawa says recently imposed restrictions will "only cause more economic hardship" for an industry that's been hit hard by COVID-19.

OCOBIA pens open letter asking premier and ministers for meeting, data

A sign on a shop window in Ottawa on March 23. The Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas penned an open letter Monday to Premier Doug Ford and his ministers to review the province's decision to close down some businesses in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

A group representing thousands of businesses in Ottawa is asking the premier and his ministers for an immediate meeting about the province's decision to close down certain sectors in COVID-19 hot spots.

Dine-in restaurants and bars, gyms, movie theatres, casinos and more were forced to close again on the weekend after the province ordered Ottawa, Toronto and Peel region to return to modified Stage 2 pandemic restrictions, citing the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in those areas. The restrictions are in effect for at least 28 days.

The Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas (OCOBIA) penned an open letter Monday to Premier Doug Ford, Health Minister Christine Elliott and Economic Development Minister Vic Fideli.

The coalition, which represents more than 6,200 bricks-and-mortar businesses in the city, says those restrictions have impacted its members' ability to survive the pandemic. OCOBIA says the measures will "only cause more economic hardship" on one of the hardest-hit industries.

We're going to start losing a lot of our restaurants in the next 28 days.- Mark Kaluski, Chair of OCOBIA

"We request an immediate meeting to discuss and justify the closure measures as they relate to the spread of COVID-19, the data points used to make this decision, the contact tracing results, the decision-making protocols, and plans for future measures," reads the letter signed by Mark Kaluski, chair of OCOBIA.

The letter asks the province to review its decision and tailor Ottawa's restrictions based on Ottawa Public Health's (OPH) recommendations for the city, which are based on local data. In early October, Ottawa's medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches said she was looking at closures only as a last resort.

"Many have lost their livelihood, savings, and retirement plans to the closures," the letter states. "Please do not compound their losses with a policy that does not address the local causes of the second wave of the pandemic."

On Friday, OPH declared the city a red zone, the highest level of a four-colour scale used by public health officials to determine the severity of COVID-19 in the community.

    Kaluski told CBC News many businesses had stocked up for Thanksgiving and invested in extra COVID-19 measures before the restrictions came into effect over the long weekend.

    "All businesses in Ottawa have been taking this seriously. We've been following all the rules, we have very strict protocols," Kaluski said, citing investments in Plexiglas and personal protective equipment. 

    Mark Kaluski is chair of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas. (Submitted by Mark Kaluski)

    "The signal that businesses are unsafe doesn't help us when we're trying to instill customer confidence." 

    Kaluski said he is open to being convinced by evidence from the province, but noted that the city's messaging prior to the recent shutdowns was that the sudden and rapid spread was the result of private gatherings and parties.

    He said between 15 and 20 per cent of locally owned restaurants are facing the imminent threat of going out of business.

    "We're going to start losing a lot of our restaurants in the next 28 days. These were restaurants that were counting on sales over the next few weeks when we still had, at least, some nice weather," he said.

    'Small businesses cannot survive'

    West Carleton-March Coun. Eli El-Chantiry is putting forward a motion to city council backing OCOBIA's letter to the province.

    "Right now, I really can't defend that decision publicly why we shut down eating inside the restaurants and bars, gyms and dance studios," El-Chantiry said.

    El-Chantiry, a former restaurant owner, said he was disappointed the province gave little more than nine hours notice to businesses when it announced the new restrictions Friday.

    "Small businesses cannot survive another 28 days of shutdown," El-Chantiry said.

    El-Chantiry's motion both backs OCOBIA's request for a review of the Ottawa-specific decisions, and asks the province to explain the data that led to the city being included in the three zones facing the modified Stage 2 restrictions. He's planning to table the motion Wednesday.

    'There will be no changes': MacLeod

    Nepean MPP Lisa MacLeod, Ontario's minister of heritage, sport, tourism and culture industries, said Wednesday that while she understands the strain businesses are facing, the province would not be backing down from the new restrictions.

    "We are following the evidence ... and I'm sure the minister of health and the premier will have more to say in the days and weeks ahead ... but there will be no changes," said MacLeod.

    MacLeod acknowledged OCOBIA's request for further justification from the province, but said the increasing number of cases and hospitalizations meant the province had to act.

    "I appreciate OCOBIA's letter. I appreciate the City of Ottawa looking at trying to encourage us to ease the restrictions. I just feel it's important that we're honest with everybody that that will not be happening," she said.

    With files from Matthew Kupfer

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