Le Pays De France - Trucker protest 'worse than Covid' for small businesses

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Trucker protest 'worse than Covid' for small businesses
Trucker protest 'worse than Covid' for small businesses

Trucker protest 'worse than Covid' for small businesses

The trucker protest over Covid restrictions has been worse than the pandemic itself for small businesses in Canada's capital, as they were preparing for an easing of health rules when the convoy rolled in, shopkeepers say.

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Ontario province, which includes Ottawa, had lifted a lockdown of restaurants and bars and increased capacity limits on retailers when up to 15,000 protesters and hundreds of trucks converged on the downtown area at the end of January.

Local small businesses were really excited for crowds to flood back to Byward Market -- Ottawa's main shopping and cultural district -- and make it lively again, said Inaas Kiryakos, owner of clothing and jewelry store Milk.

But with downtown streets blocked by the big rigs and police checkpoints, and officials warning people not to venture into the area, foot traffic dried up.

Most stores closed temporarily. Others reduced their operating hours. A dozen surveyed by AFP estimated their losses in the thousands of dollars per day while business associations warned the total could top tens of millions.

"This convoy is worse than Covid," Kiryakos said.

She explained that her shop relies on people coming to the neighborhood to dine in its many restaurants and stopping in to make a purchase, as well as spillover shoppers from the nearby Rideau Centre, a big mall.

"We were looking forward to a spike in foot traffic after the restrictions were lifted, which is what happened after past lockdowns ended," she said.

"When the truckers rolled up, it extended the lockdown in a much worse way, because anybody that would normally come down wouldn't want to," she explained.

The store had no customers Thursday.

- Mall closed -

Two blocks away, Ottawa's largest mall has been closed for two weeks after being overwhelmed by angry protesters who harassed staff and refused to follow masking rules when they first arrived in Ottawa.

Thousands of people work at 175 businesses at Rideau Centre.

Its owner, Cadillac Fairview, said in a statement that it opted to close the mall "as a result of ongoing public safety issues related to demonstrations," calling the situation "untenable."

"The continued closure of an important community space, the loss of employment income, and the financial impact on our clients is heart-breaking given all of our shared pain and sacrifice during the pandemic," said the company.

Tom Charleboix at the Paper Papier fine pens and stationery store around the corner from the American embassy, where surrounding streets have been cordoned off by police, echoed the pains of other shopkeepers.

"We've been open the whole time, but nobody has come into the store," he said.

Government workers from nearby offices who might come in during a lunch break or after work haven't during the pandemic because most worked from home over the past two years.

And now they're avoiding the downtown because of the protest. "Officials have told them not to come downtown and so they're not," Charleboix said.

"I thought it was a bit ironic that the first day (all businesses) were allowed to open, they couldn't," he commented.

The cancellation due to Covid of Ottawa's annual Winterlude, which had been scheduled to start February 4, has also meant no tourists coming to town.

- 'Hardly any customers' -

At one of several cannabis stores in the neighborhood, it was much the same.

"We've had hardly any customers in the past weeks. We usually see a lot of foot traffic and it's been dead," said Liv at Dutch Love. AFP is withholding her last name at her request over fears of a backlash.

The store, she said, has closed early most days after staff faced abusive comments from protesters who refused to wear face masks.

In front of Parliament, a lone counter-protester stood up for shopkeepers, recounting the hardships and financial toll the protests are having on them.

"I'm here to advocate for my community and very respectfully ask the convoy to go," Bobby Ramsay told AFP.