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Police officers on horses ride near Rideau Centre, as truckers and supporters continue to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates, in Ottawa on Feb. 18.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

The federal government announced on Saturday that it will hand out $20-million in relief funds to small businesses that have been affected by an anti-pandemic-restriction demonstration that has effectively shut down central Ottawa for more than three weeks.

The Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario said each small business will be able to apply for up to $10,000 in funding, and that more information on the application process and eligibility criteria will be provided in the coming weeks.

“We have heard the growing concerns and frustrations from many of the Business Improvement Associations and small businesses in downtown Ottawa that were forced to close, or have seen their business drastically affected due to the illegal blockades in Ottawa,” Helena Jaczek, the minister responsible for the development agency, said in a statement.

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Police advance on main demonstration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa

Many businesses in and around Ottawa’s core suspended operations after the protest led to their employees being harassed and their stores being inundated by crowds ignoring public-health guidelines. Some commercial buildings were shut down for security reasons. The Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas had been calling on the federal government to support the city’s shuttered businesses.

In a survey of more than 200 central Ottawa businesses earlier this month, the coalition found 75 per cent of them had lost revenue because of the protest, and 48 per cent had closed owing to safety concerns. It also found nearly half of employees surveyed were obstructed when coming to work.

Devinder Chaudhary, owner of Aiana Restaurant Collective, said he wouldn’t have been able to open his restaurant even if he’d wanted to, because its downtown building contains diplomatic offices and was shut down for security reasons.

Protesters give high fives and wave to several truckers driving away as police work to clear the streets in front of Parliament Hill to put an end to a protest on Feb. 19.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Mr. Chaudhary said he’s grateful for the government’s support, but he noted that not all business owners will consider the $10,000 maximum to be generous enough.

“For a smaller business or franchise, perhaps it may cover their losses, but I personally feel that it’s inadequate. It doesn’t even come close to covering Aiana’s losses,” he said. He estimated that his business has lost roughly $100,000 in rent, utilities, wages and food.

“I sincerely hope that there is a more realistic and fair compensation package for businesses, at least in the red-zone area of Ottawa.”

Ian Wright, who runs the Snow Goose Gallery near Parliament Hill, said his store has been closed for most of the protest’s duration. The government funding, he said, will have a tangible impact on his operations.

He said he has lost around $10,000 in sales during the demonstration, while continuing to pay his employees. He is unsure how much federal financial help he’ll qualify for, because he has already received a temporary rent reduction from his landlord.

“We don’t know an awful lot about it yet, but it’s a great thing and it’s pleasing that it’s quick,” he said.

Ottawa Board of Trade president and chief executive officer Sueling Ching said she is expecting the city to announce its own set of supports for businesses in the coming week. But she said the local government would be limited in the kind of help it could provide, compared to the federal and provincial governments.

“They’ve been very creative over the last couple years in doing what they can,” Ms. Ching said, referring to the municipal government’s efforts to support local businesses throughout the pandemic.

Ms. Ching said her organization’s first priority during the protest was to work with the federal government to get quick funding for businesses. She said the board would assess whether more support is necessary.

“We didn’t ask for anything in particular in terms of amounts, so I think at this point the businesses will be relieved to see something,” she said.

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