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A man wearing a protective face mask passes a boarded up restaurant during the global outbreak of COVID-19 in Toronto on April 6, 2020.Chris Helgren/Reuters

Five business groups called on the Ontario government on Monday to impose a commercial eviction moratorium during the COVID-19 pandemic, warning that many small and medium-sized businesses are at risk of closing.

The groups make the request in an open letter to Premier Doug Ford, saying the help is needed as the due date for June rent approaches.

The groups include the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Ontario Chamber of Commerce, Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association, Restaurants Canada and the Retail Council of Canada.

“Without your immediate assistance, more businesses will be forced to close,” the letter says. “In the absence of sufficient support, a large portion of the economy and the jobs created by our hard-working members will disappear forever.”

Last month, the federal and provincial governments announced the joint Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program to help businesses stave off eviction during the pandemic shutdown.

The program will see Ottawa and the provinces offer forgivable loans to commercial property owners to cover 50 per cent of rent for eligible small businesses, with the tenant covering 25 per cent.

But the groups said some landlords are not applying for the program, which means businesses will receive no aid at all.

“Even though the program just officially started, we already know from our members that many landlords will not apply, meaning that their tenants will not be able to access the program and the commercial tenant eviction protection it includes,” the business groups said.

On Monday, Ford resisted calls for the moratorium, noting the joint rent relief program was just getting under way. But he cautioned landlords against not taking part in it and instead evicting tenants.

He called the program an “olive branch” to landlords and urged them to register.

“They need to start signing up for this,” Ford said. “They aren’t going to like the consequences if they don’t sign up for it. I can assure you. I’m protecting the tenants, it’s simple.”

A spokeswoman for Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark did not rule out taking further action.

“We want to give landlords the opportunity to do the right thing and participate in CECRA to help everyone get through this together,” Julie O’Driscoll said in a statement. “All options are on the table, and we won’t allow people to take advantage of others while we continue to battle this terrible virus.”

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the province could grant the moratorium and give businesses relief without costing the government anything.

“Today the Ontario business community asked the province for a temporary moratorium on evictions, but the Premier would only pass the buck to landlords with vague threats,” Schreiner said in a statement. “Small businesses need a champion, not a cheerleader.”

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