“To say it’s disappointing is an understatement,” says Paul Harber of Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery.
When the Ontario government announced Friday afternoon that starting Saturday it was “cautiously” lifting capacity restrictions at most venues requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination, restaurants and bars were not included. They remain at 50 per cent capacity, with tables two metres apart.
It’s been “a roller coaster” throughout the pandemic, waiting to hear what changes were coming, with little time to deal with them, Harber said.
This time, after months of closures and takeout only, and then being able to open with limited capacity, restaurant owners were hoping to finally hear some good news, but instead discovered there would be no change in store for them.
Spectator facilities for sports, recreational fitness, cinemas, theatres, and concert arenas have had capacity limits lifted, with a limit of 20,000 people.
In settings where capacity limits have been lifted, the requirement for individuals to maintain two metres of physical distancing are being removed, with limited exceptions. In addition, proof of vaccination will continue to be required in outdoor settings “to help keep these venues safe for patrons,” the government website says.
Indoor meeting and event spaces are able to operate with numbers that enable physical distancing.
Harber has a meeting space, and events such as weddings booked, but still with limited capacities, because of the distancing required.
“People who are total strangers can sit shoulder to shoulder to watch the Raptors or the Maple Leafs play in front of a packed crowd at Scotiabank Arena, screaming and cheering for their team while they eat their hot dogs,” says Harber. “Yet family and friends sitting a couple of feet apart at tables, with no yelling going on, having their food delivered to them by servers, is not deemed safe. How does that make sense?” he asks.
At this point, he says, he feels “severely beaten down.”
It is also extremely frustrating not to have a good explanation from the province about why it’s safe to lift capacity limits at some venues, but not others.
After Friday’s announcement, a government spokesperson described eating indoors at a restaurant as being a higher risk setting, with prolonged close contact in enclosed spaces where face coverings are removed for the duration of the visit.
Harber disagrees — if anything, there is less risk, and at least in restaurants, as well as patrons being fully vaccinated, information for contact tracing is taken, and all surfaces, including washrooms, are wiped down regularly.
Harber is also frustrated that announcements are made with little time for business owners to adjust, and train staff, and that there has been no word whether the financial support from CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) for workers, which is supposed to expire Oct. 23, will be extended.
What is most disappointing, says Harber, is “the way this industry has been hurting the whole time. I’m blown away that sports facilities can be 100 per cent, but not restaurants. Nothing adds up to me. We keep hearing about the fourth wave, the rampant variant, and yet the province is opening up different avenues that seem to be a whole lot worse than restaurants. Any venue where people have to be double vaccinated should be allowed to operate at full capacity.”
He says he hopes restrictions will be lifted before it gets too cold to operate patios, and when that happens, “they won’t do it at the last minute, without any warning. Worrying about what is going to happen and how to deal with it is exhausting. It would be good to at least have a heads-up.”
Harber, however, is quick to say he feels “very blessed. I don’t have to worry about having a roof over my head. Some of my friends do.”
Maria Mavridis of Corks Wine Bar and Eatery on Queen Street, and the Firehall Flame across the street, is in the process of organizing several fundraising events at different venues, which had been put on hold during COVID. At each location, the capacity remains at 50 per cent, because there has to be two metres between tables — and although it means less money being raised for important causes, at least she knows it’s safe.
On the Corks patio, which is a popular destination for diners, and is partially closed in, capacity is more like 40 per cent, to keep tables far enough apart.
“I don’t mind that we’re not jammed together in the restaurant, in the interest of safety,” she says. “We still have COVID with us, and you can still get it, even if you’re vaccinated.”
“I’m comfortable with it (limited capacity) for the safety issue. But for the business issue, when you’re turning people away at the door, it’s tough.”