While some Ottawa businesses are wondering whether to shut their doors this weekend as a convoy of truckers makes its way to Parliament Hill, others are rolling out the welcome mat.
The convoy includes truck drivers from across the country and others broadly opposed to public health mandates.
One dynamic is the sheer number of vehicles converging on the city of a million people from three directions may make it very hard to get around this weekend, particularly to, from and through downtown.
Ottawa police are urging people to avoid unnecessary travel downtown this weekend and the city has already started closing some lanes of traffic, saying it expects disruptions will last until Sunday. Provincial police have asked people to avoid using major highways.
The expected traffic problems led Ottawa Public Health to close a COVID-19 vaccine clinic near downtown.
Another variable is that while the main convoy has been relatively peaceful in its cross-country journey, Ottawa police say there are concerns about other protests and counter-protests.
This all has led some businesses to weigh their options about whether to close.
“We’ve been here since 1977, so we’ve seen all types of protests,” said Matthew Dixon, who owns Dixon Jewellers near Parliament Hill.
“We’re accustomed to keeping our ear to the ground and trying to figure out what’s going to happen.”
Kevin McHale, executive director of the Sparks Street BIA (Business Improvement Area) said he’s been hearing some concerns from businesses along the pedestrian-only street just south of Parliament Hill.
The warning to stay away from the downtown couldn’t come at a worse time, McHale said, as it could have been an otherwise busy weekend for retailers.
“Downtown’s already kind of in this COVID slump,” he said. “And having [a protest] like this taking place on the Hill is just going to further drive residents to not want to come down to the core.”
Businesses prepare for convoy
Yet some businesses plan to accommodate the truckers, whether or not they support calls to remove COVID-19 mandates.
“Pre-pandemic, we employed over 100 people, had a good, strong lucrative business that’s just been completely decimated and kind of left for dead,” said Gregg McCabe, co-owner of Crazy Horse Stonegrill Steakhouse & Saloon.
The restaurant is offering members of the convoy free takeout until Saturday to show their support.
He expressed frustration with “the way that we’ve been treated and everything that’s gone on.
“We’ve long talked about trying to do something and wanting to do something, but there’s so many times where you’ve just felt helpless and unable to do anything.”
Tom Orr also plans to keep the Antrim Truck Stop in Arnprior, Ont., west of Ottawa, open for practical reasons, saying it’s “the most logical place for the first 150 trucks to park” before they continue on to Ottawa.
He has cleared out more space in the four-hectare parking lot in anticipation of a busy weekend.
“I would be an idiot to close my business to trucks or to the general public. I’d never judge anyone that comes into our business, no matter what their beliefs or views are,” the former truck driver told CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning.
Michelle Groulx, executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement, has been telling businesses to remain open if they feel comfortable. But she has been hearing some worries.
“As far as it is right now, it doesn’t seem to be a safety issue, but of course things can change very quickly and so we have asked businesses to remain alert,” Groulx said.
Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury says he has also been fielding questions from concerned business owners.
“They don’t want to create tension points, but at the same time, they want to make sure that their clients are safe, that their staff are safe and that they don’t put anyone at risk. I guess that’s the unknown of this protest.”