KITCHENER, Ont. — It’s been three months and five days since people were allowed to sit inside his downtown coffee shop but who’s counting besides Chetan Patel?
On the first day of Stage 3 reopening in this part of southwestern Ontario, Patel said it’s been a long haul since anti-COVID measures forced businesses across Canada to close and brought much of the economy to a grinding halt.
It’s been hard, Patel said of the last months as two older women sit at a table, the only mid-morning patrons.
“It takes time,” he said through his face mask. “They come slowly. They start to come.”
Stage 3 of Ontario’s reopening effort took effect across 24 out of the province’s 34 public health units on Friday.
Parts of the province, where most of the new COVID-19 cases are reported, remained in the more restrictive Stage 2. They include The Toronto and Hamilton areas, Windsor-Essex and the Niagara Region, where the Canadian side of the world famous Niagara Falls tourist attraction remained remarkably uncrowded this week.
Besides restaurants, gyms in Stage 3 areas were also allowed to reopen with physical distancing measures in effect, although several had yet to do so.
Movie theatres also had the go-ahead. However, Cineplex Entertainment, Canada’s largest movie-theatre chain, said it would not resume operations immediately.
Downtown Kitchener, too, was still relatively quiet at lunch time on Friday in light of the many offices still closed. But Shawn McCulligh, operations manager at one restaurant, was optimistic.
“You can’t see me smiling under here,” McCulligh said gesturing to his face mask. “But I’m smiling.”
McCulligh said he and his staff have been preparing for several weeks, ensuring enough space between tables, sanitizing, and making guests aware of the safety precautions. People, he said, were still reluctant about coming inside to eat.
“Absolutely. We’re just in the infancy stages of this pandemic and we’re still learning as we go,” McCulligh said. “We don’t know everything that’s coming out, so we just have to take it one day at a time and ensure we’re prepared.”
Dave Prine, the lone seated guest, was reading a newspaper. It’s great to be enjoying the restaurant indoors since March, he said.
“Oh yeah, get out of the heat, have a cold beer,” Prine said. “It’s nice.”
At an otherwise empty eatery nearby, Judy Love waited for take-out food. She was still hesitant, she said, about eat-in dining.
“People get a little loose with the rules,” Love said.
The owner of the eatery, Majid Maqbool, said take-out orders have kept him afloat in past months, which he said have been hard. He wasn’t expecting crowds any time soon.
“Everybody’s scared of COVID-19,” Maqbool said. “Let’s see, slowly, slowly maybe they are coming.”
At the same time, he said, the easing of restrictions marked by Stage 3 was welcome.
“Even I’m excited to go out to eat,” Maqbool said. “I hope so many people are excited to go sit and dine.”