Downtown business owners relieved to reopen their doors

Downtown Ottawa business owners are celebrating being able to reopen once again after being forced to shutter their doors during the more than three week protest that was rife with traffic disruptions, inaccessible streets and ongoing police activity.

After 3-week closure, businesses hope customers will return quickly

Ottawa's Rideau Centre lost an estimated $3 million per day in revenue after management closed the mall on the advice of police. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Some downtown Ottawa business owners say they're relieved they'll be able to reopen this week after being forced to shutter their doors during a weeks-long protest that was rife with traffic disruptions, inaccessible streets and, most recently, police checkpoints.

"We're feeling really excited, big sighs of relief here," said Sarah Chown, managing partner of the Metropolitan Brasserie, located at the corner of Rideau Street and Sussex Drive, an intersection where convoy participants blocked the roads for much of the past three weeks.

Chown said the restaurant stayed open for takeout throughout most of the pandemic but had to close during the first two weeks of the protest because it was inaccessible.

"The financial impact that [the protest] has caused us as a business, as well as our employees, has been devastating, to say the least," she said, adding the protest also occurred during two of the most lucrative winter holidays: Valentine's Day and Family Day.

The truck convoy seen from the Westin Hotel in Ottawa on Sunday February 6, 2022. The weeks-long protest blocked many people's ability to get around the downtown core. (Reno Patry/CBC)

Other businesses said they have also been feeling the effects of the protest, including those in the Rideau Centre where more than 1,500 people work. 

"This was the biggest blow we've had in the last two years," said John Bourada, who owns the New York Fries franchise in the food court.

The mall is typically open 364 days a year, but locked its doors within days of the start of the protest. It reopens Tuesday.

"We've been used to unpredictability for the last two years, and gone through lockdowns," he said.

"But even through lockdowns we were able to stay open and do curbside takeout and delivery, but [the protest] just shut us down completely."

Bourada said he initially thought the number of people participating in the protest might bring in extra business, until he realized it "wasn't a controllable situation." 

He said people removed the rope around the food court, stood on tables and sang and danced without masks.

Christine Leadman is executive director of the Bank Street BIA. She says businesses have suffered significantly during the past several weeks as a protest in the downtown core forced many to shutter their doors. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Feds pledge $20M

On Saturday, the federal government announced it would allocate $20 million to support Ottawa businesses affected by the protest. Small businesses will be able to apply for up to $10,000 to help defray non-deferrable operational costs.

But local BIAs say the funds won't come close to covering what businesses lost.

"It certainly doesn't cut it," said Christine Leadman, executive director of the Downtown Bank Street BIA. 

"Some of my business owners have indicated that they've lost more in the last three weeks than they did during the lockdown," she also said. 

Sarah Chown of the Metropolitan Brasserie said the money likely wouldn't cover most businesses' insurance payments and hydro bills over the last three weeks.

"Obviously we're grateful for that [money], but it's really a drop in the bucket when you look at what we have lost and the expenses that continue to come in," she said. 

Focus turns to welcoming back customers

With the announcement police had begun to remove some checkpoints in the ByWard Market Monday as demonstrators have largely left the downtown core, businesses hope customers will feel safe enough to take their place.

Kevin McHale, the executive director of Sparks Street BIA, said there's an anxiousness to get past the protest and the cold weather and focus on revitalization of spring. 

"Hopefully this is the last chapter of a difficult couple years here, where we can now move on," he said.

Meanwhile, Leadman said she hopes the last few weeks will not deter people from wanting to set up shop in the area in the future, but knows an in-depth review of how the situation was handled is needed. 

"For the businesses and those of us who have worked in the core all this time, there has never been anything like this," she said.  

With files from Ben Andrews