Elgin bar closures could have long-lasting effects, owners worry

As Elgin Street bars begin to reopen after last week's COVID-19 scare, some local restaurateurs say the damage to their industry will go beyond just the temporary lost profits.

Concern that COVID-19 cases could shake people's confidence

A woman walks past Ottawa pub Deacon Brodies on Oct. 2, 2020. The Elgin Street bar, one of four on the commercial strip to recently close after a potential COVID-19 exposure, reopened Friday. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

As Elgin Street bars begin to reopen after last week's COVID-19 scare, some local restaurateurs say the harm to their industry could go beyond just the temporary loss of profits.

Four bars and restaurants — Elgin Beer Project, the Lieutenant's Pump, St. Louis Bar & Grill and Deacon Brodies — voluntarily closed their doors out of concerns that staff or customers might have been exposed to COVID-19.

Two of those bars have told CBC News they chose to shut down after learning a pair of customers who'd come through their doors had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

On Friday, both of those bars, the Lieutenant's Pump and Deacon Brodies, announced on social media they were reopening after their staff had tested negative and their periods of self-isolation had ended.

Ken Goodhue, one of the owners of Deacon Brodies, said Friday he didn't know specifically who the two customers are, but he urged them to think about the consequences of their actions.

"I think they have to understand just the damage they've caused, not just financially, but ... to the industry generally," said Goodhue. "People's response to that is, 'Where am I going to be safe?'"

No outbreak declared

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) did not declare a community outbreak after the bar closures, as it did not meet the agency's criteria.

In a statement Friday, OPH said it couldn't comment on specific cases, but the public should "be assured" that contact tracing was underway.

While there's no evidence the Happy Goat Coffee Company location at Elgin and Lewis streets was among those exposed, owner Henry Assad said he's attributing a sudden downturn in business there to the wariness the closures generated.

Bar patrons need to obey the rules around physical distancing — something Assad said the customers at the heart of the cases weren't doing, according to chatter in the industry.

Assad also urged people not to hop from pub to pub. 

"It does shake the confidence of customers," he said. "People are staying home. They're not coming out, and they're not frequenting Elgin. It's really sad, actually."

Henry Assad, president and CEO of Happy Goat Coffee Company, is seen here in September 2019. Assad says business at his Elgin Street location dropped off after four bars on the street closed due to COVID-19 concerns. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

'This is serious'

The fallout from the Elgin Street closures comes as Ottawa's restaurant industry is already staring down new restrictions implemented Friday by the provincial government.

Those include new caps on the number of patrons who can be in an establishment at once, as well as the number allowed to share a table.

Goodhue said one way to reassure the public that restaurants and bars remain safe would be to increase enforcement, with police and bylaw officers out in greater numbers, ensuring establishments are following the rules.

Last month, Quebec police performed a similar-sounding enforcement blitz in the Outaouais.

"I'm confident that probably 99 per cent of the places operate that way because we're small business, we understand how vulnerable we are," said Goodhue.

"But it reminds the public and the staff that this is serious."

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