Niagara-on-the-Lake restaurant owners are frustrated and discouraged by further regional and provincial restrictions that make it tough for them to continue to operate.
Hours of opening are being cut back and staff hours reduced, says local business owner Maria Mavridis, although restaurants have done everything they can to keep their patrons safe. Of the provincial and regional measures now in place, the one that is causing the most difficulty is limiting those dining out to people of one household sitting together at a table.
Last Thursday, Dr. Mustafa Hirji, Niagara Region’s acting medical officer of health, announced more restrictions on restaurants and bars, hoping to avoid having the Province impose stronger measures on local businesses.
Friday, the Province did what Hirji wanted to prevent — Niagara went from yellow to orange, with further limitations for businesses and bars.
Hirji says he didn’t know that was coming. If he had, he might have more closely aligned the restrictions and the timing of them, but he’s not considering changing any of his Section 22 orders now, although they could be revisited if the number of cases decreases.
Hopefully, he says, the measures will work, and “we’ll be able to move Niagara back to the yellow zone.”
The decision to change the thresholds of the colour-coded system, which took Niagara from the cusp of being in the orange category to now being on the border of red, and with that more stringent regulations, came about once it was discovered the original decision about thresholds was not what provincial health officials had recommended, says Hirji.
When the system was first announced, health officials across the province were surprised by how high the thresholds were, he says, expecting them to be more aligned with what they are now.
The announcement of the change in the metrics that determine restrictions came a day after new COVID-19 projections were released, indicating Ontario could see 6,500 new cases per day by mid-December.
Hirji says the regional restrictions, which limit those dining together in a restaurant to people of the same household, were not intended to punish business owners, who have done nothing wrong.
But it doesn’t feel that way, says Mavridis.
Of all the new measures that have been handed down from two levels of government over the past week, the one that is the hardest to accept is the regional regulation of people from only one household per table.
“We had couples who came to the restaurant together this weekend, and we had to turn them away,” she says.
If the issue is young people hanging out with friends at restaurants, she added, this isn’t going to stop them from being together — they will just socialize at home.
“Corks was dead this weekend, and it’s dead today (Monday). We’re going to start closing Tuesday to Thursday,” Mavridis says.
“What really makes my heart ache is seeing what this is doing to our staff. They’re totally devastated, and they’re scared. They know their hours are being cut. This is just a horrible time to do it.”
Restaurant owners and workers from across the region have come together in protest of the regional restrictions, says Mavridis, and will take their objections to the Region Thursday.
One of the reasons for such strong opposition from restaurant owners, she explains, is that they feel targeted by these new regulations, while retailers large and small, which see crowds of people not respecting the two-metre distancing regulations, continue to be able to operate without further cutbacks.
Meanwhile, restaurant staff have done everything they can to keep on top of the cleaning, wear masks and now goggles as well, and follow all the other guidelines mandated by the Province.
“It definitely does feel like we’re being punished,” says Mavridis.
Hirji says he knows restaurant owners are not happy with his decisions, and he’s not surprised.
“I recognize the hardships this puts on the restaurant industry,” he says, noting they were already struggling, but just starting to feel like they were getting back on their feet.
The restrictions are a result of “the sad reality of how COVID is spreading,” with restaurants providing the venue for social interaction.
Niagara continued to see large numbers of new cases over the weekend, although less than the previous weekend: 29 on Saturday, 16 on Sunday and 21 on Monday.
Niagara-on-the-Lake, as of Monday, remained at 59 cases, the same as last week.
Hirji describes his regulations as permitted under Section 22 of the Ontario’s Health Protection and Promotion Act. He is also requiring restaurant owners to collect more information from their patrons, and to ask them to attest to being free of COVID-19 symptoms.
COVID is spreading mostly among young people in their 20’s who are seated at the same table in restaurants, and then are taking it home, to their workplace, gyms and other locations, and even to long-term care homes, Hirji says.
The act does not allow him to target individuals, or to fine them, so changing behaviour is his best option.
Although his order limits people per table to one household, he is allowing for someone who is an “essential contact,” such as a caregiver, to share a table with that person for whom they are responsible, to prevent those living alone from being socially isolated. He is also extending that to couples who don’t live together but are in a “romantic relationship,” for the sake of their mental health.
Restaurant tables must continue to be two metres apart, or have plexiglass between them, and customers must be seated at all times, except when using the washroom, paying for their order or when they leave.
Hirji says that while the Province continues to seek a balance between reducing the spread of the virus while limiting further hits to the local economy, so far, in Niagara, that balance hasn’t been found.
He has asked health inspectors to go to bars and restaurants, paying evening visits as well, to ensure businesses are complying with the new regulations.
There are two options for dealing with violations, he says, one through the court system, that could order fines of up to $25,000, or an immediate ticket issued by a bylaw officer with a fine of $750. Both fines would be against the business, not the patrons.
He says he understands municipalities are strapped for funds to pay bylaw officers for more enforcement, and the Province should help fill that gap.
And “regardless of the current stage of shutdown, the Province should be stepping up with the resources to help restaurants and staff through this difficult time.”