Ottawa

Small businesses struggling for survival in Ottawa's downtown 'ghost town'

Small business owners in Ottawa's downtown core say with most federal public servants now working from home, the number of customers walking through their doors has slowed to a trickle.

Independent shops, restaurants facing bankruptcy as office workers stay home in droves

Scott May, owner of Bar Robo at Queen St. Fare, says sales have plummeted since thousands of downtown office workers began working from home. 0:38

Small business owners in Ottawa's downtown core say with most federal public servants now working from home, the number of customers walking through their doors has slowed to a trickle.

The sudden and drastic decline in business is threatening the livelihood of independent shops and businesses, and has turned the city's core — normally teeming with office workers seeking their morning coffee, lunchtime snack or after-work drinks — into a "ghost town," according to Scott May, owner of Bar Robo at Queen St. Fare.

"There's literally no one downtown. No traffic, no cars, no people," May told Ottawa Morning.

Our entire business model is predicated on serving those office workers.​​​​​- Scott May, Bar Robo

May's restaurant, which doubles as a coffee shop and bar, is located in the food court on the ground floor of the Sun Life Financial Centre, home to some 4,000 office workers prior to the pandemic. The building is also directly connected to Parliament station on the Confederation Line.

May believes there are now about 100 workers left in the building, causing his sales to plummet and forcing him to lay off most of his staff.

Ottawa's ByWard Market, pictured on a sunny Thursday in July. Downtown business owners say with federal public servants and other office workers staying home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, their own future is precarious. (Michel Aspirot/Radio-Canada)

"You can imagine the rent in the downtown core, in a prime location," May said. "Our entire business model is predicated on serving those office workers."

While May says he's hoping public servants and other office workers will return, the federal government has given no indication that's about to happen any time soon. 

'We need people to come downtown'

Elias Merhej, who owns E.M Tailors & Dry Cleaners on Elgin Street, said his business is down around 80 per cent since the pandemic struck.

Early on, Merhej said he'd stay open for two to three hours a day to allow some regulars to drop off their dry cleaning, but that hasn't been enough. His landlord has offered to cut his rent in half, but Merhej said with only five to eight customers walking through his door each day, he's had to lay off staff and use up his saving to stay in business.

Many shop and restaurant owners worry their revenues won't make up for all the money they lost since shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as most office workers may not return to the area anytime soon. 9:47

"We need people to come downtown," Merhej told Ottawa Morning. "I think we will be OK for a little while, but if it stays that way for another four, five months, by the end of the year I think we'll close."

Commercial rent relief from the federal government has been extended through August, but May said he's uncertain how long small businesses can last after the program ends. 

"If you want to help out people in the economy, this is the time to do it," he said. "We need your support, folks. Come downtown and have a drink."

With files from Ottawa Morning

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