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Downtown Montreal on life support with workers reluctant to return

Click to play video 'COVID-19: City’s effort to get Montrealers back downtown failing' COVID-19: City’s effort to get Montrealers back downtown failing
WATCH: Many employers are allowing and even encouraging employees to work from home. The work-from-home plan threatens to cripple Montreal's fragile downtown economy. Amanda Jelowicki reports – Sep 3, 2020

Sandy Weigens hasn’t set foot in his downtown office on Ste. Catherine Street since March. The application technology specialist misses his colleagues. But he feels he’s almost more efficient working from home.

“I find that I am working a lot more, and in fact to a certain extent, more hours than I would otherwise during a traditional workday,” said Weigens, who works at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg downtown.

The law firm initially planned for a gradual return to work around Labour Day, but that’s been pushed back to at least Thanksgiving.

“We are not in a hurry to rush back, despite what the municipal or provincial governments are trying to motivate us to do,” Weigens said.

Read more: Montreal calling on employers in downtown office towers to bring workers back

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With the downtown economy on life support, this week Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante urged downtown workers to return.

It’s estimated there are 310,000 office workers in downtown Montreal, but the city says only about 30,000, or just under 10 per cent, are actually back at work in their offices. Government guidelines allow for up to 25 per cent of employees back in an office while respecting social distancing.

But corporations aren’t in a rush to return.

A Bell Canada spokesperson said employees won’t be returning until November at the earliest.

“When it’s possible for more team members to safely return to the workplace, we’ll be taking a gradual approach based on all government health and safety standards and Bell’s own measures in place to protect our employees, customers and the public,” said Vanessa Damha. “We expect those working remotely now will be doing so for the foreseeable future.”

Click to play video 'Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante on Global News Morning: Part One' Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante on Global News Morning: Part One
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante on Global News Morning: Part One – Sep 2, 2020

Sun Life told Global News its employees won’t return at all for the rest of the year. And a Royal Bank spokesman said employees aren’t obligated to return to downtown offices, but they can start returning if they wish to do so starting in October.

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The head of Montreal’s Chamber of Commerce says it will be difficult for an economic rebound downtown if corporations don’t step up.

“If the large employers downtown do not send a different message, it will have a huge impact,” said Michel Leblanc.

Leblanc says corporations need to throw downtown a lifeline.

Read more: Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante calls for provincial, federal help to rebuild from COVID-19

“Your responsibility is not just to your employees to make it safe, or to your business to make it profitable. It’s also to make sure the downtown core survives,” he said.

The head of Montreal’s convention centre believes people will soon tire of videoconferencing.

“People want to get back together. We are all feeling the impact of teleconferencing and social distancing,” said Robert Mercure, the CEO of the Palais des Congres. “People need to physically get together. A human being is a social being.”

Mercure says that while the last few months have been difficult, people are already starting to book space at the Palais for 2022.

Click to play video 'Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante on Global News Morning: Part Two' Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante on Global News Morning: Part Two
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante on Global News Morning: Part Two – Sep 3, 2020

“There is no kidding around, we are going to have another year that is going to be tough,” Mercure said. “But I am seeing signs on the horizons, indicators that people want things to return.”

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But convincing employees it’s safe to return poses challenges.

“The prospect of going out into this new world for me, personally, is frightening,” said Weigens.

And for the foreseeable future, he’s happy to call his office his home.