OTTAWA -- Ottawa's Medical Officer of Health spent more than two hours answering questions from city councillors about COVID-19, many of them critical of a provincial decision to move Ottawa to a modified Stage 2 on Saturday, forcing many businesses to cease some or all of their operations for four weeks.

Councillors, echoing the questions of many of their constituents, wanted to know why certain businesses were seemingly being singled out and what evidence existed to support it.

Dr. Vera Etches was not able to provide concrete data suggesting restaurants, bars and gyms are a major driver of COVID-19 transmission. She did, however, say there is proof transmission is happening in those environments.

"We know there is a risk of transmission in these settings—bars and restaurants and indoor sports," she said. "What we've found is there are people who have tested positive who've identified bars and restaurants as places they've been in the 14 days where they could have been exposed and picked up the virus, as well as people visiting those settings where they're infectious."

She says there has been evidence of transmission of COVID-19 between employees in businesses like bars and restaurants and between groups of people socializing in these settings.

"Have they been in Costco? Have they been in Walmart? Have they been in school?" Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder asked. 

Dr. Etches said there are some differences between how people behave in a big box store and how they behave in a restaurant or bar, even if more people might be in the former at any given time.

"I think we need to go back to the basics here, and I am looking at how to remind other business like larger stores and others, that it is about wearing masks and keeping distance in those stores," Dr. Etches said, speaking on big box stores. "The challenge with restaurants and bars is we know people take off their masks to eat and drink, so there is more of a risk there, potentially, based on what we see in other jurisdictions."

Dr. Etches later told reporters that eight per cent of people who have tested positive have reported during contact tracing investigations that they've been in a restaurant or a bar in the time when they either became infected or could have infected others.

Businesses want to see proof

On Tuesday, the Ottawa Council of Business Improvement Areas (OCOBIA) sent an open letter to the provincial government, demanding to see the data that the province used to justify the 28-day partial lockdown of restaurants and bars, and the closure of businesses like gyms and fitness studios. 

The head of one BIA told Newstalk 580 CFRA's "Ottawa Now with Kristy Cameron" restaurateurs felt sidelined by the province imposing restrictions just hours before the Thanksgiving long weekend.

"I really think that we're in a situation where this thing has spread throughout the community," said Jasna Jennings, of the ByWard Market BIA. "The businesses said, 'if you can show us we're a problem, if the vast majority of cases is tracing back to us, we're happy to step back', but that's not what we're seeing."

City Council unanimously passed a motion on Wednesday in support of the OCOBIA's demands.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said he hopes the province will comply with the BIAs' demands and show them how they came to the decision to roll Ottawa back to a modified Stage 2.

"We're looking for those data points that they used to make the determination that we should go back to a quasi-Stage 2 situation," Watson said. "If we get a better understanding of what makes up their decision-making process, that can be presented to the board of the BIAs, and there may be greater peace of mind that it was the right decision based on the fact they had."

Watson says his goal now is to ensure funding support promised by the province makes it into the hands of business owners as soon as possible.