By Charlie Senack
Local businesses are finally hoping to catch a break after the latest round of COVID-19 restrictions following Omicron’s spread in Ottawa.
On Jan. 20, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a three-step plan to reopen the province after restrictions were imposed due to rising COVID-19 case counts. As of Jan. 31, indoor dining has been able to resume at 50 per cent capacity, along with gyms, movie theatres, and indoor sports and recreational facilities.
Proof of vaccination will remain for select settings including restaurants. If COVID-19 trends head in the right direction, all indoor capacity limits are expected to lift by mid-March.
It’s welcome news for local businesses that have been hit hard, and it comes after almost two years of restrictions, which have sometimes changed multiple times a week.
Local Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) have also needed to pivot, going from in-person events to virtual activities and campaigns to support their members.
Dennis Van Staalduinen, executive director at the Wellington West BIA, says they have primarily focused on online tools to help advertise their businesses. Last year, a new directory was formed, a place where everyone can browse all businesses in the district with one click of a button.
“We took the time to rethink what we do so we can better support our members at all times, not just during COVID,” he said.
It’s a similar situation in Westboro Village where the local BIA has worked with their members to expand their social media and website presence.
Judy Lincoln, Westboro Village BIA executive director, says while circumstances have been far from ideal, the community has come together to support local.
“It continues to be challenging, but everyone is trying new things. We are fortunate in Westboro that we have had a number of new businesses open or relocate to our village,” she said.
“All of our gyms usually offer something virtually, but if you look at Love Your Body Fitness, they only opened in the fall and were really excited to get going,” Lincoln added. “Then, we had another round of restrictions but they are continuing to teach online where it’s really about building that community.”
Back in Wellington West, Van Staalduinen says their businesses have also found creative ways to maximize their potential.
“Tooth and Nail, the brewery, were one of the first businesses out the door in 2020 to go from a purely in-person retail walkup model, to making it very easy for their customers to order online and pick up their beer in a remote way,” he said. “This is something they always wanted to do and were thinking about it, but COVID gave them the kick to make that switch. As soon as they started doing it, they felt a lot more comfortable about their future and surviving this pandemic.”
“Then, you have Nicastro’s in Wellington Village,” he added. “They pretty quickly realized the restaurant part of their business was not going to be easy to sustain and wasn’t going to be very profitable through COVID, so they very quickly pivoted to being much more a grocery store, but also to set up online delivery and home delivery of groceries as well.”
Van Staalduinen also noted Aurelius Fine Oils and Balsamic Vinegars, which renovated its location to remove a big part of their showroom, and instead turned it into an online order fulfillment centre. It’s a decision many businesses in Westboro are also making.
“There are a few businesses who have adapted their business model, so have maybe moved online to be fully virtual,” said Lincoln. “There are some who are looking at the size of space they need, which also causes shifting and changes. I think it’s sometimes just a chance to take a breath and look at what’s next. We are fortunate though that we have had more businesses come into the neighbourhood than leave.”
Lincoln says more businesses are already planned to fill some of the vacant storefronts later this year and some second and third-floor office spaces will also be welcoming new tenants.
Van Staalduinen predicts at least one new business opens in Wellington West each week, but worries about the larger retail spaces, which could be harder to fill. The worry is chain stores could move into the neighborhood that could take away from some of the local retailers.
While 2022 began with a sense of déjà vu and unpredictability, both local BIAs are feeling optimistic about a more stable year ahead.
But no matter where trends head and what restrictions may be imposed in the future, the message from both executive directors is clear: support local retailers in your community.
“Always think local. You can often buy online from a lot of our businesses and do curbside pickup,” said Lincoln. “Online doesn’t just have to be big, multinational corporations. Order take out, pick up your coffee, make a positive review online. Word of mouth is still a great way to support local businesses.”
“Another thing you can do is get to know the owners of the stores, ask them a question, take a picture of them, and share it with your friends on social media,” added Van Staalduinen.
“The personalities and individuals who run these stores are such heroes of the neighbourhood and I would love to see the neighbours celebrating them. They need more than money right now; they need comfort and the feeling that their neighbourhood has their back,” he said.