'A delicate balancing act': businesses in protest zone agonize over whether to open or close

Trucker convoy
Protesters in the "Freedom Convoy" have been blocking downtown streets in Ottawa for nearly two weeks. Photo by Caroline Phillips

The question of whether to welcome customers at his downtown eatery is far from an open-and-shut case for Anthony Bailey.

The owner of Toro Taqueria, a small Bank Street restaurant located about four blocks from Parliament Hill, has been weighing the pros and cons of going to work each day for more than a week as the “Freedom Convoy” protest continues to tie up traffic in the neighbourhood.

After shuttering the business for three days last week as a string of 18-wheelers lined the street in front of his shop, Bailey finally decided to reopen his doors last Thursday and Friday.

The results were hardly encouraging.

“It was a total waste of time,” he says with a sigh, before adding: “I have to try, right?”

Bailey was hoping the lifting of the provincial ban on indoor dining last week would be the boost his business needed after a bleak January. 

Instead, amid the ongoing protests, he’s engaged in what feels like a never-ending cost-benefit analysis. He says sales have plummeted from $300-$400 a day to barely $100 since the protests began, hardly making his decision whether to open a slam dunk.

'I need to open'

“That’s the tough process,” Bailey explains, adding he “wouldn’t hesitate” to close the restaurant if he or his employee ever felt uncomfortable. “I need to open – I need to get revenue, even if it’s a hundred bucks. I’ll take it right now.”

Bailey stresses that the protesters who’ve patronized his eatery have been civil, with many saying they empathize with his plight as a small business owner during a pandemic that’s ravaged his industry.

“We haven’t had a problem yet with anybody being disrespectful or trying to preach to us about anything,” he adds.

As the demonstrations stretched into their 13th day Wednesday, Bailey is far from the only business owner in the heart of the protest zone wrestling with the same issues. 

Earlier this week, the owner of the Rideau Centre said the downtown mall, which has been closed since Jan. 29, would remain shut indefinitely due to “ongoing public safety issues related to demonstrations surrounding Parliament Hill.”

Cadillac Fairview issued a statement Sunday saying “conditions for reopening will be evaluated on a daily basis,” adding its primary concern was the safety of the shopping centre's employees and customers.

“The situation in Ottawa’s downtown core is untenable and we call on all levels of government to collaborate on a solution,” the statement concluded.

Dan Kelly, president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says many of the organization’s members in downtown Ottawa are constantly weighing the benefits of bringing in whatever revenue they can against concerns for employee and customer comfort and safety.

"It’s not easy math to determine as a business owner whether you should open or close."

“It’s not easy math to determine as a business owner whether you should open or close,” says Kelly, whose group represents more than 110,000 SMEs across the country. 

The veteran lobbyist says some retailers in the protest’s epicentre have had no choice but to shut down since traffic on their streets has effectively come to a standstill. 

Others, however, are in a constant state of uncertainty about whether to turn the lights on.

“They’re having to make day-by-day decisions, often hour-by-hour decisions, because it really depends whether the employees are even able to make it through to get to work,” Kelly notes.

Kalin McCluskey, the executive director of the ByWard Market BIA, says the question of whether to open or close has been top of mind for more than a few of her organization’s 600-plus members over the past couple of weeks.

“For most merchants, their No. 1 priority has been the safety and security of their staff,” McCluskey says.

While some businesses in the Market have remained closed throughout the protests, many others have chosen to open with reduced hours or carry on with business as usual, she says. 

'Adding insult to injury'

“It’s been a mix,” McCluskey says. “It’s a delicate balancing act that I don’t think anybody feels that they’ve perfected.”

Kelly says the protests have dealt yet another blow to many enterprises that were “already hanging by a thread” after two years of measures aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19.

“It just feels like adding insult to injury,” he says. “It’s not like curbside pickup is going to be your salvation. It’s even more complicated than the COVID restrictions to try to get through the challenges at the moment. It is brutally hard to try to figure out what the right measures are to try to help businesses at this point.”

McCluskey agrees.

“It has been a long journey with COVID and the ongoing closures that we’ve sustained,” she says. “For (the protest) to come in on top of it, folks are exhausted. They need support – they need people to be shopping. They understand that right now, it’s not always safe to do so. So it’s been a really tricky position for everybody to be in.”

Kelly is calling on the province to step up its support for affected businesses. Meanwhile, he’s urging all sides to find a speedy resolution to the situation so the downtown can reopen once again.

“The longer this goes on, it can actually alienate a group that probably is quite sympathetic to some of the perspectives that protesters have,” he says, referring to entrepreneurs who support the convoy’s call for an end to most COVID-19 measures.

Back at his Bank Street restaurant, Bailey says he’s doing his best to roll with the punches.

“It’s like, ‘Here we go again – something else,’” he says. “It feels never-ending, and it’s just another thing to add to the chapter of the last two years of trying to operate a business in the downtown core.”