Ottawa biz group plans weekend rally to protest restrictions on bars, gyms and other venues

Restaurant photo

Another group of Ottawa business owners is adding its voice to the growing chorus of retailers, restaurateurs, bar operators and other entrepreneurs demanding to see data that justifies the province’s decision to shut down certain segments of the city’s economy.

OpenSafe Ottawa ​– a newly formed coalition of business owners from across the National Capital Region ​– says its members are planning to march from City Hall to Parliament Hill on Saturday morning to deliver a message to all levels of government regarding the modified Phase 2 restrictions recently imposed by the province.

“We’re feeling like our businesses don’t have a say at all,” says Scott Ruffo, owner of the Brass Monkey on Greenbank Road and the lead organizer of Saturday’s rally. “We’re not respected. We want to show that we have a gathering of people that need to be heard. Our opinions have to count.”

Ruffo’s live music venue was one of hundreds of local bars, restaurants, gyms, cinemas and other businesses that were ordered to stop serving indoor customers for at least 28 days as of Oct. 10 in a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19.

"We’re feeling like our businesses don’t have a say at all. We're not respected."

But the longtime bar owner says he’s yet to see any evidence linking eating and drinking establishments to outbreaks in the capital. He and his industry colleagues have been following public health guidelines to make their businesses as safe as possible, he argues.

“We’re doing the contact tracing. We’re making sure people are wearing masks. We’re spending all kinds of money on PPE and sanitation,” he says. 

Ruffo says he wants provincial officials to sit down with local business owners to come up with a plan to safely reopen bars, restaurants, gyms and other venues before it’s too late.

“Every day there’s another business or two closing down permanently in the Ottawa area,” he says. 

“That’s hard to watch. We want to work together with governments and public health to follow those protocols and get our doors reopened and at least try to survive.”

Ruffo says he’s getting support from business group from across the city, including the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas. Last week, that organization wrote an open letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Health Minister Christine Elliott and Economic Development Minister Vic Fideli asking for a meeting to explain the reasoning behind the latest restrictions.

OpenSafe Ottawa expects up to 1,000 people to show up for Saturday’s march.

“Our message is to show that there is a group of business owners that are working together in solidarity,” Ruffo says. 

Restaurant fined

Restaurateur Domenic Santaguida also backs the group’s message and says he’ll try to attend Saturday’s rally if he’s not busy working. Santaguido’s eatery, Vittoria Trattoria on Rivergate Way, was recently fined $880 by Ottawa bylaw officials for not having adequate ventilation in the tent covering its outdoor patio.

Santaguida, who’s planning to fight the fine, says he’s “dumbfounded” that some businesses, such as dance studios, have been allowed to welcome customers back indoors with certain limits while his establishment is left out in the cold ​– literally and figuratively.

His concerns are echoed by Jenna Ladd, owner of Iron North Studio in Hintonburg.

Ladd says business at her fitness facility on Somerset Street West was just starting to return to pre-pandemic levels when the new rules were imposed. She's now conducting classes virtually and outdoors in a nearby park when weather permits.

“It's hard to remain optimistic," says Ladd, adding she supports OpenSafe Ottawa's goals but isn't sure if she'll attend this weekend's march.

Thursday afternoon, the office of Nepean MPP Lisa MacLeod – the government’s senior cabinet minister in Ottawa – said the recent decision to reopen dance studios with a limit of 10 people per class was made after careful consideration.

“Unlike a class in a fitness setting, such as a gym, which is typically done on a drop-in, one-time, or episodic basis, most youth or dance studio programming requires participants to register for multi-week or year-long programs with the same participants in the class week after week – effectively cohorting, making contract tracing and case management much more feasible,” a spokesperson for MacLeod said in a statement.

But Santaguida says he’s not convinced, adding he’s frustrated with the lack of response from the province.

“We’ve been asking for information and for someone to explain to us the data. No one’s seen those answers yet.”

Santaguida says it wouldn’t make financial sense to keep his outdoor patio running with two sides of the tent open, as Ottawa Public Health regulations require.

“Even with all the sides closed, we can’t keep the tent warm,” he says. “It’s impossible to try and keep two sides of a patio open in Ottawa after the middle of November and expect anyone to sit there and be comfortable.”