The mayor of the Canadian capital urges the federal government to send its workers back to their downtown offices to strengthen flaking local businesses.
Jim Watson appealed directly to Finance Council President Mona Fortier to remind her that Ottawa has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in any major city in the country, saying it is safe for workers to return.
“A healthy city must have a healthy core,” the mayor said in a statement.
About 94 percent of adults in Ottawa are fully vaccinated, and 98 percent of the public nuclear service have certified that they have received two shots of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Yet many government employees still log in from home.
Business and government employees working from home have taken a huge bite out of small commercial businesses, said Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
The union is one of several business groups that have also asked the government to send its workers back to the office.
“So many (companies) are related to serving office workers. Not just restaurants, but the dry cleaners, the grocery store, retailers, hotels in the center, these are some of the companies that have been hardest hit by COVID restrictions,” he said.
While nearly every city center has been starved by customers since the pandemic began, in downtown Ottawa, they have been exposed to the twist more than anywhere else, Kelly said.
Just as many capital companies began reopening their doors after the latest wave of COVID-19, a massive protest against public health measures flooded downtown streets with huge trucks and forced shops to close for weeks.
Meanwhile, the federal government appears to be among the slowest to bring workers back to office, Kelly said. Government employees in Ontario have already been ordered back, at least part-time, for example, on April 4th.
The federal government has begun slowly increasing building occupancy, Fortier said in a statement Tuesday.
The decision on how quickly and to what extent departments will move away from teleworking has mainly been left to the individual directors with the support of the Finance Council.
“The Treasury Board Secretariat provides guidance to promote a coherent approach across departments and agencies, while respecting the different operational realities of each organization. There is no uniform approach,” she said.
Fortier said she regularly keeps in touch with Watson about how they can boost the vitality of local restaurants and businesses.
Watson said even a hybrid model that sees employers working at the core only part of the time could help struggling small businesses.
Kelly said that if the government does not send employees back soon, many of these companies will be gone. “The longer we have workers working from home, the harder it becomes to loosen the egg.”
The negative impact will be massive even if the government starts moving people back to the office part-time, he said.
“They just do not want enough business.”
The issue appears to be on government radar, Kelly said, but the wheels are turning slowly in Ottawa.
“Downtown businesses are hanging in a thread, and in Ottawa, that thread has become even more thriving,” he said. “So we have to move on so fast.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on March 22, 2022.