Ottawa business owners push for reopenings in wake of new COVID-19 data

Craig Buckley
Craig Buckley, the owner of Kettleman's Bagel Co., says it's time to lift the restrictions on his business. File photo

Ottawa bar and restaurant owners urged the province to lift restrictions on their businesses Friday after new data showed they account for only a small fraction of recent COVID-19 outbreaks in the city.

Meanwhile, Ottawa’s mayor says he believes the current restrictions on bars, restaurants and other businesses should be eased when the current rules expire early next month.

Thursday’s update from the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table showed that bars and restaurants were directly linked to two per cent of outbreaks in the city between Aug. 1 and Oct. 24. By contrast, bars and restaurants in Toronto accounted for 14 per cent of outbreaks in the same time period.

With a week remaining in 28-day modified stage two restrictions that shut down bars and eateries across the city on Oct. 10, local restaurateurs say the latest numbers prove what they’ve been arguing all along – that their establishments are not major drivers of COVID-19 infections.

“I’m very disappointed by the whole thing,” said Dave Longbottom, the owner of Centretown’s Flora Hall brew pub. “I think (governments) are so committed to this so-called strategy of locking down as a means to slow the spread that they can’t see the forest for the trees.”

COVID-19 charts
The charts above compare COVID-19 outbreaks in Ontario hot spots from Aug. 1 to Oct. 24. Courtesy Science Advisory and Modelling Consensus Tables

Longbottom accused the province of “fear-mongering” by creating the impression that bars and restaurants are unsafe. He said Premier Doug Ford should have pushed for more precise data before imposing restrictions on businesses like his.

“If they didn’t have the data, that is the job of the premier,” Longbottom said. “He should be demanding the data before making the decision that has such a devastating impact.”

According to Thursday’s numbers, schools and daycares accounted for the biggest share of recent outbreaks at 39 per cent. Craig Buckley, owner of Kettleman’s Bagel Co., said it doesn’t make sense that those facilities can remain open while his business can’t.

"We can’t be 100 per cent safe wherever we go, but we also cannot close down a billion-dollar economy, watch people’s life savings go down the drain and have thousands and thousands of people living off of EI."

“We can’t be 100 per cent safe wherever we go, but we also cannot close down a billion-dollar economy, watch people’s life savings go down the drain and have thousands and thousands of people living off of EI,” he said. “It’s insane.”

But a leading Ottawa doctor cautioned that the number of confirmed outbreaks is not necessarily a true reflection of how many cases of COVID-19 are actually spread in bars, restaurants and other locations.

Dr. Doug Manuel is an epidemiologist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and a member of the science advisory table. He said outbreaks are only declared after health officials are reasonably certain that cases can be traced back to a particular location.

In schools or daycares, it’s relatively easy to track everyone’s comings and goings and determine close contacts, Manuel said.  

But tracing cases back to bars and restaurants after a few weeks is more challenging, he explained. For example, people who’ve tested positive might be “sheepish” about admitting to contact tracers and public health officials that they’d been out socializing during the pandemic or “they don’t remember because they’ve only been there once.”

Ottawa Public Health echoed that message on social media Friday afternoon.

“The simple fact is: looking at outbreaks alone is not an accurate way to portray what we know about the situation in our community,” the agency tweeted, noting that 92 per cent of recent cases among non-health-care workers were not linked to declared outbreaks. 

“Just because an outbreak was not declared in a specific setting does not mean transmission did not occur there.”

'More precise' measures needed

Nonetheless, Manuel told OBJ he empathizes with owners of bars, gyms and other “high-risk” settings. He said most of those businesses were “doing great” at adhering to safety protocols before the latest shutdown, adding that proprietors who follow the rules are paying the price for the actions of a few scofflaws.

“That’s not fair,” he said. 

Manuel thinks it’s time for the province to look at “more precise” public health interventions, such as targeting bars and eateries in specific neighbourhoods that have been identified as hot spots or closing certain types of fitness facilities where the risk of infection has proven to be higher.

“It’s difficult, but I think we need to work with businesses to do that,” he said.

Beleaguered business owners did receive a bit of encouraging news on Friday. 

Noting that new cases have been trending downward in recent days, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, gave residents a collective pat on the back. 

“Ottawa has come a long way since the beginning of October,” she said. “Because of your actions, we are starting to see some stabilization.”

Meanwhile, Mayor Jim Watson told CFRA that Etches will be consulting with local businesses, BIAs and health experts over the next few days to craft a “made-in-Ottawa approach” that he plans to submit to Ford next week before the 28-day clock on the modified stage two restrictions runs out.

Asked whether bars, restaurants, gyms and other businesses should be allowed to reopen, Watson said data suggests the city is heading in the right direction.

“I don't want to second-guess what Dr. Etches is going to put forward, but certainly given the numbers that we've seen yesterday, it would suggest that some form of opening for those businesses should at least be considered,” he told the radio station.

Mark Kaluski, the chair of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas, said he’s hopeful that restaurants, bars and gyms will be back in full operation soon. 

“We’re very optimistic that (Ottawa Public Health) is going to be supportive, given some new safety measures, to reopening as soon as our case counts get to a point that makes them comfortable,” he said.