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Amir Rahim, owner of Grounded Kitchen, Coffee and Bar in Ottawa, sits in his restaurant on Nov. 25, 2021.Justin Tang/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s capital was once abuzz with thousands of employees who commuted into its downtown core to work, including in many government buildings. But nearly two years into the global pandemic, it remains unclear when and if many of those workers, former drivers of the local economy, will make a return to their offices – creating enormous unknowns for businesses and concerns for the city’s mayor.

Goldy Hyder, the president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada, said data indicate that Ottawa has experienced the largest downtown traffic decline in all of North America during COVID-19.

He said, while following public-health guidelines is important, he is worried about “economic carnage” in the city that could take place with prolonged work-from-home arrangements, in addition to issues around societal cohesion and mental health.

Ottawa is far from alone, as the prolonged effects of COVID-19 have dramatically changed the way that Canadians navigate their cities. It has also upended the way that downtown cores operate, look and feel across the country. This fall, some employees slowly started to emerge from their homes with the uptick in vaccinations, but many continued to work remotely. The emergence of the Omicron variant in Canada is also complicating back-to-work plans and has public-health officials on high alert.

In the capital, federal public service has traditionally filled many downtown office towers, as have private-sector employers such as Shopify, and both have embraced work-from-home arrangements. In May, 2020, Tobi Lütke, Shopify’s CEO, tweeted that his commerce platform would become a “digital by default company” and the company would keep offices closed until 2021. Beyond that, he said, most of the work force would permanently operate remotely.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said in a recent interview it is his sense that if more employees are not able to start coming back in Ottawa’s downtown core in the next five months, it will be very difficult to turn around the local economy. He also said he has been in touch with the federal government about his concerns for the health and viability of the downtown core.

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On Nov. 10, Treasury Board of Canada president Mona Fortier said there would be no “one-size-fits-all approach” for government workplaces. She said that deputy heads are responsible for the safety and well-being of their employees and she expects next steps in federal organizations will be set out in a phased way.

Mr. Watson said he believes it is in everyone’s interest to have healthy downtowns or the result is the “doughnut effect,” meaning the city’s core becomes hollowed out in comparison with the suburbs wrapping around it, such as what happened years ago in Detroit.

Mr. Watson said that the design of Ottawa’s transit system is also predicated on a certain number of people coming into downtown.

He noted that while Ottawa has a higher per capita number of government buildings and public servants, many other cities are concerned about people coming back to work, whether in the private or public sectors.

As 2022 approaches, restaurant owner Amir Rahim isn’t banking on a full-time return to work from the downtown employees who were once the engine of his business.

For nearly a decade, Mr. Rahim relied on a steady stream of customers who worked in Ottawa’s downtown core who strolled in for lunch, or had their noon-hour meals catered, as the lifeblood of his restaurant, Grounded.

“The entire business model was based, rightfully so, on a huge demographic,” Mr. Rahim said. “No one could have predicted what happened.”

When public-health concerns about COVID-19 cases mounted in early 2020 and prompted widespread workplace shutdowns, Mr. Rahim’s business was hard-hit, much like other businesses across the country that had to grapple with the devastating effects of the pandemic. His doors were closed from March through April until Grounded reopened again that May.

Mr. Rahim said 2020 was “all about survival.” He created a pulley-system for food pickup and purchased heaters for outdoor dining. Grounded also stayed afloat with the federal wage subsidy, Mr. Rahim said. There are 12 employees, including him.

Now, Mr. Rahim said, he can’t rely on everything going back to normal, so he is trying to transform the restaurant to become more of a “destination,” where people seek out reservations particularly on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings.

“The show must go on,” he said.

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