Business organizations in downtown Ottawa are calling on governments to roll out monetary support for businesses that have been forced to shut down during a week of protests against COVID-19 measures, demonstrations that show no signs of abating.
A coalition of business improvement areas in central Ottawa said it surveyed more than 200 owners in the city’s core, and found that 75 per cent have lost revenue because of the protest, and 48 per cent have closed owing to safety concerns. It also said nearly half of employees surveyed have been obstructed when coming to work.
“The businesses and citizens of Ottawa need immediate action and support due to this protest,” read a letter to local MPs from Michelle Groulx, executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas.
“The financial hit, at a time when many businesses were poised to reopen on January 31, 2022, is immense.”
The protests in Ottawa, which began as a trucker rally against cross-border vaccine mandates, have morphed into a larger demonstration against all COVID-19 restrictions. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has called the event an “occupation,” and hundreds of protesters have dug in for the long run by building wooden structures; establishing a command post; and stockpiling supplies such as fuel, propane and firewood.
Police continue to warn people to stay away from the downtown core, where commercial trucks blare horns and cause gridlock in central Ottawa.
Kevin McHale, executive director of the Sparks Street BIA in the city’s core, said many of the businesses were forced to shut down for their own safety amid reports of employees being harassed for wearing masks and large groups of mask-less protesters ignoring health and safety rules indoors.
“We want to make sure that it’s clear that this event is completely unlike any other protest we’ve ever seen in downtown, and … it’s the nature of this [demonstration] and the disruption that it’s causing” that led to the request for financial support, Mr. McHale said.
Ottawa’s Chief Financial Officer, Wendy Stephanson, said in a brief statement Sunday that the city is looking into providing support.
“The City of Ottawa is working with other levels of government regarding options to support businesses in the downtown core affected by the ongoing demonstration,” Ms. Stephanson said.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency on Sunday, saying it would help the government with providing services and moving fluidly to procure equipment needed to manage the protests.
Ian Lee, an associate professor with Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, said it’s unlikely that businesses could make a claim with their insurers in the current situation.
He said business-interruption insurance is a very finely defined policy that often requires a business to sustain physical damage from events such as a natural disaster.
“The businesses here closed on their own of their own recognizance, and I just can’t see that being covered by business-interruption insurance,” Mr. Lee said.
“It just opens up the door to such a wide open precedent … the cost would be so great, the insurance companies would stop offering that insurance.”
Meanwhile, Ontario’s Ministry of Finance said that over the past two years, the province has provided “targeted relief of grants, rebates and provincially administered tax deferrals” for businesses impacted by the pandemic, but did not comment on any specific compensation for companies affected by the protests.
Instead, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Finance Minister called on protesters to stand down.
“Too many businesses in Ottawa have felt the need to close their doors for health and safety reasons associated with the ongoing protest,” Emily Hogeveen said.
“As the Premier said last week – it is time to go home and let small businesses safely open their doors for the people of Ottawa.”
While the coalition is still looking into how much financial support is needed, Mr. McHale suggested rent and utility bills could be one metric that could inform remuneration amounts.
He added that the timing of the protests is particularly painful for restaurants, which were looking forward to reopening for indoor dining last week, when Ontario lifted some pandemic restrictions, allowing restaurants to reopen at 50-per-cent capacity.
“This was supposed to be a kickoff, and businesses have seen good return from loyal customers in other areas of the city that have been able to open,” Mr. McHale said.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.