COVID Ottawa: Mayor urges feds to bring workers back downtown to save local businesses


The mayor of Canada’s capital is urging the federal government to send workers back to their downtown offices to support declining local businesses.

Jim Watson appealed directly to Treasury Board President Mona Fortier to remind her that Ottawa has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates of any major city in the country, saying that it is safe for workers to return.

“A healthy city must have a healthy core,” the mayor said in a statement.

Approximately 94% of adults in Ottawa are fully immunized and 98% of core public service members have reported having received two injections of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Despite everything, many civil servants still connect from home.

Business and government workers working from home have taken a huge share of small commercial businesses, said Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

The federation is one of many business groups that have also called on the government to send its workers back to the office.

“So many (businesses) are tied to serving office workers. Not just restaurants, but dry cleaner, convenience store, retailers, downtown hotels, these are some of the businesses that have been hardest hit by COVID restrictions,” he mentioned.

While nearly every urban center has been starved of customers since the pandemic began, those in downtown Ottawa have been strained more than anywhere else, Kelly said.

Just as many capital firms began to reopen after the latest wave of COVID-19, a massive protest against public health measures flooded downtown streets with huge trucks and forced outlets to close for weeks.

Meanwhile, the federal government appears to be among the slowest in getting workers back to the office, Kelly said. Ontario public servants have already been fired, at least part-time, by April 4, for example.

The federal government has begun to slowly increase building occupancy, Fortier said in a statement Tuesday.

The decision of how quickly and to what extent departments will abandon remote working arrangements has been mostly left to individual directors, with support from Treasury Board.

“The Treasury Board Secretariat provides guidance to promote a consistent approach across departments and agencies, while respecting the different operational realities of each organization. There is no one-size-fits-all approach,” she said.

Fortier said she keeps in touch with Watson regularly to find out how they can help keep local restaurants and businesses alive.

Watson said even a hybrid model that sees employers working in the core only part of the time could help struggling small businesses.

Kelly said if the government doesn’t fire its employees soon, many of these businesses will disappear. “The longer we have workers working from home, the harder it will be to untangle the egg.”

The negative effect will be huge even if the government starts sending people back to office part-time, he said.

“They just won’t have enough business.”

The issue appears to be on the government’s radar, Kelly said, but the wheels are turning slowly in Ottawa.

“Downtown businesses are hanging by a thread, and in Ottawa that thread has become even more frayed,” he said. “So we have to move just as fast.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on March 22, 2022.

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