Province won't reverse decision to close bars, restaurants and other businesses: MacLeod

Elgin Street pub
The Lieutenant's Pump on Elgin Street, shown earlier this year, is one of many Ottawa bars and restaurants that can no longer serve patrons indoors. Paul McKinnon/iStock

A day after a coalition representing thousands of Ottawa retailers and restaurants urged the province to rethink its decision to shut down certain sectors of the local economy, the city’s top-ranking politician at Queen’s Park said the government has no intention of changing its mind.

“I know that this has been challenging for the businesses that operate in the City of Ottawa and those that are related to my sectors,” Nepean MPP Lisa MacLeod, who is also the minister for sport, heritage, tourism and culture industries, told reporters on Wednesday morning.

“These restrictions, as difficult as they are, are the best way to protect our population. It was a decision that our government had to take based on the evidence.”

However, several business advocates are challenging the government to produce evidence showing a connection between their operations and the recent spike in COVID-19 cases.

"These restrictions, as difficult as they are, are the best way to protect our population."

On Tuesday, the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas 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 province’s decision last Friday to ban indoor food and beverage services at bars and restaurants and order the closure of gyms, meeting halls, movie theatres, casinos and a range of other venues for at least 28 days. 

The organization is demanding to see data that justifies the stricter measures, arguing its members are being unfairly singled out because there is no evidence that COVID-19 is spreading through establishments such as bars and restaurants.

'Completely sympathetic'

Pointing to statistics showing that Ottawa has the highest number of infections per capita of any city in the province, MacLeod said her government had no choice but to crack down on places such as pubs, eateries and cinemas where people gather in close quarters.

“I am completely sympathetic. My heart is sick over it,” she said. “It’s been demonstrated when people congregate indoors, it’s difficult to contain the spread of COVID-19, especially if they’re not wearing a mask.”

The BIAs were backed by West Carleton-March Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, who planned to raise a motion at city council on Wednesday asking his colleagues to “fully support” the coalition’s letter. The motion ended up being adopted unanimously.

Despite El-Chantiry’s warning that the latest restrictions could be “the final nail in the coffin” for many businesses and cries of a double standard from gym and bar owners who question why malls and big-box stores such as Costco and Walmart are allowed to remain open, MacLeod said the medical rationale for the modified Stage 2 restrictions was clear.

The MPP said the province relied on advice from health experts who say there’s less likelihood of transmission in department stores because people tend to maintain more distance from each other and spend less time in those businesses.

She cited a recent outbreak at a Hamilton fitness studio that’s been linked to dozens of new cases in the southern Ontario city as proof of how quickly the virus can spread even when proper precautions are apparently taken.

“We’re making international news today because 61 patrons at a spin class contracted COVID-19,” MacLeod said. “I totally appreciate where (business owners) are coming from, but I think our government has been very open and transparent the entire way through.”

Meanwhile, the city’s medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, said Wednesday morning she backs the province’s decision to clamp down on businesses such as bars and gyms.

Etches noted that two weeks ago, she was pushing for residents to go out for food and drinks only with members of their own households.

"The situation hasn't got any better over those two weeks,” she told councillors, adding that Ottawa’s rate of infections grew faster than Toronto’s over the past week. “It's gotten worse, and it's getting worse faster, and I absolutely support the provincial decision to close bars and restaurants and gyms where there's close contact." 

Ottawa Public Health recently elevated the city to “red” status ​– the highest level on a four-colour scale used to determine the severity of COVID-19 in a community.