There is no doubt local restaurant owners are disappointed they remain closed while more retailers are permitted to open, but they’re not supporting the level of anger displayed by others against the decision.
After a week of knowing the some changes were coming for Niagara, the province announced Friday that Niagara would move into the grey-lockdown zone this Tuesday.
That meant non-essential retailers, closed since Dec. 26, are allowed to open, with 25 per cent capacity.
With Niagara the only region in Ontario entering the grey zone, there was initially some confusion about restaurants, but it quickly became clear that in grey, they remain closed to indoor dining, able only to offer takeout.
Hair salons, barber shops, gyms, and yoga studios also remain closed.
While the province was allowing for limited reopening in retail stores, they were also asking for individuals to adhere to the stay-at-home order, to masking regulations, and to limiting interactions to household contacts.
Restaurant owner Maria Mavridis of Firehall Flame and Corks Wine Bar and Eatery had been waiting for the announcement, hoping Niagara would be in red. She was anticipating being able to open this week, and had emailed her staff with schedules. Instead, she was hearing that retailers could open with limited capacities, but not restaurants, and was texting staff to tell them they were staying home.
“We were so excited, and ready to open.”
It wasn’t making a lot of sense to her or seeming very fair that stores could open at 25 per cent capacity, but restaurants could not, even though they could follow all the safety protocols and limit the number of people in their dining rooms.
Store owners aren’t expected to take names and phone numbers of those who shop, but restaurants were doing that before the shutdown, and are prepared to continue, she says.
Despite feeling some frustration over the province putting NOTL in grey, Mavridis says she wants nothing to do with a Facebook page that has apparently been the source of threats against Hirji, blaming him for the decision that is keeping restaurants closed in Niagara. The group page, United Hospitality Niagara, was created in November to give restaurant owners and employees a place to discuss COVID-related challenges.
The level of anger and threats against Hirji “are not what our family represents,” she says, noting that while she initially joined the Facebook page, she only checks it to see what members are saying, but doesn’t comment.
From what she has seen in recent days, none of the NOTL restaurant owners were a part of that. “They were definitely not from NOTL restaurants. I don’t even know if they were business owners or hospitality workers,” she says.
Although the level of threats had toned down by Tuesday, members were still pushing for him to be fired, with a list of all regional councillors’ email addresses along with a request to encourage them to support his firing.
Part of the frustration over remaining closed comes from the public perception there is a considerable amount of financial support for restaurant owners, which is not the case, Mavridis says. Although she has received a grant to cover the money spent on protocols for COVID protection, such as plexiglass and personal protective equipment, that was money they had to put out in the first place, and there have been other small business grants that they didn’t qualify for, including rebates on gas and hydro bills, but only for those who haven’t been able to pay their bills and are behind.
While restaurants are still permitted to do takeout, that hasn’t worked for her two Queen Street restaurants, she says. Locals aren’t accustomed to coming to Queen Street for takeout, and she would be competing with other NOTL restaurants that have been offering it all along. Her staff are better off remaining on employment insurance than being called in for just a few hours of work a week. “It’s actually better for them if we don’t bring them back for that. It’s not worth working a few hours, and without tips.”
Mavridis has come to the conclusion that it’s better to stay closed now, for another two or three weeks, than reopening and taking a chance on another shutdown.
If Niagara restaurants reopened while Toronto was shut down, “they all would have flooded down this way,” she says.
She also doesn’t want to take a chance on facing another shutdown when the weather is improving and people want to get out. “Right now, there are a few people walking on the street, but when stores are allowed to open, some with only two people at a time, is it worth it? Better for us to wait another two or three weeks.”
She’s accustomed to long winters on Queen Street, anticipating a good spring and summer, but it’s difficult to know what to expect this year. Instead, it makes sense to be proactive now, she says, “and hope this gets better. There’s no fast fix. It’s tough, but we have to be patient.”
Matt Dietsch, who with his brother Paul owns Sandtrap Pub and Grill, says he’s disappointed he can’t reopen, but current restrictions have so far “done a good job of getting us where we want to be.”
The fact that restaurants can’t reopen is a “big hot topic of debate,” he adds, “but decisions are being made to keep us safe.”
The Sandtrap is making the most of takeout orders while the dining room remains closed. “That is out of our hands. We just have to keep going with whatever they throw at us.”
The Mary Street restaurant has always been popular with locals at lunch time, he says, and they miss that crowd, but dinner takeouts are doing well. “Thankfully for us we always have had takeout, so we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.” It has allowed them to keep three full-time staff and two part-time. However, he’s had to lay off 18 others, “and that’s been the hardest part. That was tough.”
He’s not one to spend much time on Facebook, choosing to avoid the negativity. “I don’t want to to get riled up. I try to be a positive person, although it’s not always easy these days.”
About the threats from others in the hospitality industry across the region, “there is no point taking your frustration on people who are trying to do their job. All our politicians and public health officials are doing the best they can to keep us safe. It’s a crazy situation we’re all going through,” says Dietsch. “We’re just trying to follow all the rules to get through this, and open up again soon. It’s been a long, hard winter for a lot of us. Just the fact that there’s talk about another lockdown, a third wave, makes it even more difficult.”
As hard as it is to be a restaurant owner right now, being a parent is also a challenge, he says. The father of two young boys, Dietsch says he’s happy that at least schools have reopened, having seen how hard it is on their kids’ mental health. “This is the best thing for them,” and for the parents, he adds.
He also feels for those in long term care, and their loved ones. “It breaks my heart to think about what they’re going through, and the mental health struggles some people face. I just hope this is over soon. I’m really looking forward to spring, and hopefully better times ahead.’