CITY HALL – Councillors Eli El-Chantiry and Jan Harder received unanimous support for their motion to support a letter from the city’s businesses demanding the premier revisit the decision to shut down Ottawa businesses due to increased cases of COVID-19.

During Wednesday’s (Oct. 14) city council meeting, the first following the province’s announcement to revert Ottawa back to a ‘modified Stage Two’ effectively closing down hundreds of Ottawa’s businesses, El-Chantiry forwarded a motion to support the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas (OCBIA). He had told West Carleton Online it was coming.

Last week the provincial government enforced stricter restrictions on Ottawa, Toronto and Peel Region. This forced many businesses in Ottawa to close their doors for pretty much the rest of the month.

The OCBIA disagreed with the restrictions and Monday (Oct. 12) sent a letter to Premier Doug Ford, Health Minister Christine Elliott and Economic Development Minister Vic Fideli.

The OCBIA, which represents more than 6,200 bricks-and-mortar businesses in the city, says those restrictions have impacted its members’ ability to survive the pandemic. The OCBIA says the measures will “only cause more economic hardship,” on one of the hardest-hit industries.

The letter asks the province to review its decision and tailor Ottawa’s restrictions based on Ottawa Public Health’s (OPH) recommendations for the city, which are based on local data.

Earlier during the council meeting, Etches said she supported the province’s decision.

“Ottawa has the highest rate of COVID-19 in Ontario,” she told council. “We have to do things differently here. I fully respect this was the decision of provincially elected officials. It was hard, but they have the best regulatory process to monitor this.”

Etches told council she wrote the province two weeks ago requesting “immediate action.”

“At the time I didn’t feel we needed to close restaurants and bars if people stayed in their bubbles,” she said. “The situation hasn’t got any better. In fact, its got worse. I support the provincial government. Its hard. It’s not what I want, but I respect the decision.”

Etches said, in Toronto 44 per cent of the COVID-19 cases are coming through community spread.

“Thank you for this great information,” El-Chantiry replied. “I’m a little interested in Toronto. They have the numbers. Why was Ottawa not provided with the same information?”

El-Chantiry says its critical these decisions to shut down businesses are supported by evidence.

Etches did not have numbers for Ottawa but stated “we’ve actually have very few outbreaks outside of healthcare.”

Etches says one particular case shines a light on the difficulty of contact tracing.

“There was a restaurant that had five confirmed cases all employees,” she said. “It was a cluster of employees so I suppose you could say that’s due to the restaurant. But those employees were part of a social grouping. We have found in this situation, the employees gather together outside of their work, and did not follow guidelines.”

“Surely to God we deserve more evidence-based information,” El-Chantiry said. “We don’t challenge your professional expertise, but we need to see the evidence.”

El-Chantiry wanted to know what percentage of risk can be coming in to Ottawa from neighbouring communities with residents who work or regularly visit Ottawa.

Coun. Harder was also part of the motion and spoke on behalf of the struggling small businesses.

“They played by every rule,” Harder said. “They paid for increased safety precautions, cleaning, plexi-glass, heaters. And now they have to close. How will we know what success looks like?”

“I can’t speak for the provincial government, but we have similar goals,” Etches said. “To reduce hospital visits and to reduce fatalities due to COVID-19. How do we want to live with COVID-19? That’s the decision for society and elected officials.”

Despite that, El-Chantiry was challenged by a decision affecting 6,200 businesses in Ottawa creating $250 million in property tax and employing “10s of 1,000s of employees.”

“I found it really hard to swallow,” he said. “Let’s remember, this affects all of us.”

The motion “supports the request made by OCBIA to the Province of Ontario to review the Ottawa specific decisions announced on Oct. 10 based on the most current data and local public health advice; and Ottawa city council asks the province to provide the city and Ottawa residents with a better understanding of the data that was used to inform the Ottawa-specific COVID-19 restrictions.”

The motion passed unanimously.

El-Chantiry spoke to West Carleton Online following the decision.

“This isn’t just a challenge to business owners,” he said. “It’s a challenge to mental health. People need the gyms, drinks, dinner. There’s a lot of stress out there. Impaired driving charges are up. There’s a cost. What’s the evidence to support these closures” That’s all. Hopefully, the province will reconsider.”

El-Chantiry said he did appreciate the province’s announcement to deploy 150 new contact tracers to the area.

“I hope people will continue helping the local businesses and take-out food, by gift cards and alcohol,” he said.