City eyeing extra plowing, fire pits to help businesses weather COVID-19 storm this winter, Watson says

Elgin Street winter
The city plans to step up efforts to keep busy retail districts such as Elgin Street clear of snow this coming winter in a bid to help local merchants weather the storm of COVID-19, Mayor Jim Watson says. Paul McKinnon/iStock photo

The City of Ottawa is looking at stepping up snow removal on busy commercial streets and implementing other measures to help businesses survive what could be a tough winter amid looming fears of a second wave of COVID-19, Mayor Jim Watson said Thursday.

During a virtual roundtable event hosted by the Ottawa Board of Trade, Watson said City Hall staff are working with local business groups to come up with strategies to assist restaurants, bars, retail shops and other enterprises that have seen revenues plummet during the pandemic. The plan is expected to be rolled out in the coming weeks.

For example, the city plans to step up snow removal in busy shopping neighbourhoods to make it more convenient for customers to park and shop or do curbside pickups, Watson said.

“Those areas will be cleaned out quicker to give those businesses a fighting chance to continue to remain vibrant in the winter months,” he said.

Another option being considered is permitting bar and restaurant owners to install fire pits in their outdoor spaces as a way of prolonging the patio season, the mayor said. 

The number of registered patios in Ottawa jumped from fewer than 100 in 2019 to 350 this year after the city waived some of its fees and allowed patios to expand to streets and parking spaces so customers could have more room to eat and drink while keeping their distance outdoors. 

In addition, Watson said the city is also partnering with Ottawa Public Health on campaigns to “dispel the myth that COVID can be spread through ventilation systems” and “reinforce that it’s safe to eat or shop inside” as long as people follow the proper protocols.

The mayor said much of the economic recovery hinges on the actions of Ottawans themselves. He called on residents to buy more from local merchants and less from big-name global e-commerce sites.   

“It’s nice to have all of these online services, but those companies don’t sponsor the local baseball team,” he said. “We need to support those local businesses who’ve been here to support us.”

Tax hike to be capped at 3%

Meanwhile, Watson also assured the audience he intends to uphold his pledge to cap property tax hikes at three per cent in 2021 despite the city’s challenging financial situation. The city is losing $1 million a day in expected revenues, thanks in large part to a steep drop in transit ridership and fewer rentals of city-owned facilities. 

The federal and provincial governments have pledged $124 million in emergency funding to help the city offset a projected $192-million budget shortfall, but Ottawa still faces a gap of close to $70 million and is not allowed to run a deficit under provincial law.

“We’ve seen our expenses skyrocket and our revenues plummet,” Watson said. “It’s the worst of both worlds.”

Nonetheless, the mayor vowed not to budge on the three per cent threshold, adding he’s hoping other levels of government will chip in with more support so the city doesn’t have to raid its reserve funds.

Watson said he’s been touring neighbourhood retail hubs recently and was disheartened by what he saw.   

“There are a lot of empty storefronts,” he said. “The last thing I think we need to do is push those people further into financial trouble.”

Discussing the likelihood of a second wave of COVID-19 this winter, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, said the city might have to “take targeted approaches” to shutting down certain segments of the economy should cases spike.

Etches urged local business owners to be “vocal” about adhering to safety protocols and encourage customers to keep up efforts to stop the spread of the virus. 

“Nobody wants to go back to all those restrictions,” she said. “That helps when we hear your voice.”

Ottawa’s top doctor also encouraged the audience to download the COVID Alert App, noting the app recently proved its worth when a local resident who received a notification that he’d been in close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 then got tested and found out that he too had the virus.

“They wouldn’t have gone for testing otherwise,” Etches said. “That allowed us to stop further transmission. The more people who join (the app), the better.”

Noting businesses “can’t afford” another full-scale lockdown, Watson urged everyone to do their part to curb the virus’s spread.

“These are extra reasons why we need to stay vigilant and not let our guard down,” he said.