London, Ont. bars, restaurant owners welcome lifting of COVID-19 restrictions

On Dec. 25, 2021, The Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority were victims of a cyber attack, which resulted in employee and client data being accessed. Getty Images

Local bar and restaurant owners are welcoming Monday’s announcement from the province regarding capacity limits and proof of vaccination requirements, but several say it will take time to see patronage levels normalize and for the damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to be undone.

Premier Doug Ford unveiled on Monday that Ontario would be fast-tracking previously announced steps to lift restrictions, including moving the next step of its reopening plan up to Thursday instead of next Monday.

Social gathering limits will increase to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors on Thursday, while capacity limits will be removed in places such as restaurants, bars, gyms and movie theatres. Capacity at businesses such as grocery stores, pharmacies and retail stores will be set at the number of people who can maintain a distance of two metres.

Less than two weeks later, on March 1, capacity limits will be lifted in all remaining indoor public settings, and proof-of-vaccination requirements will end for all settings. Masking requirements will remain in effect, with a specific timeline to lift the measure to come at a future date, the province says.

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Read more: Ontario to end COVID proof of vaccination March 1, mask mandate to remain in place

“Good to see some good news for a change, but we wondered why it happened in the first place. Why restaurant, hospitality industry, gyms were given restrictions that others weren’t,” said Mike Smith, owner of Joe Kool’s, Fellini Koolini’s, The Runt Club, and Toboggan.

“We’re happy to see it removed, but we’re still not back to normal.”

Smith likened the changing measures, implemented most recently to curb the spread of virus amid the surging Omicron variant, to Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute. “They say we’re getting back to normal and they lock us down again,” he said.

“Hopefully they realize that the mental health of our employees, their fiscal health is an important factor too. COVID’s always been a concern for us, but there are a lot of other concerns.”

At The Scot’s Corner pub, owner Billy Thompson described Ford’s announcement as being “a step in the right direction,” but noted that “the damage has been done” in that fewer people are venturing out downtown.

Under current pandemic restrictions, bars and restaurants are allowed to offer indoor dining with 50 per cent capacity.

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“I would love to have 50 per cent of my capacity even in the bar at this time, but you just don’t,” Thompson said, adding that with downtown workers still largely tending to their jobs remotely, the pub doesn’t see the lunch crowds it used to.

“We don’t have people coming out watching sports because everybody, for the last two years, has bought themselves big TVs and they’re used to getting their beer from The Beer Store and sitting (and) watching at home,” he said.

“It’s definitely going to take some time to, like, make people’s brains realize that it’s okay to go back out again,” rather than stay in and order from a food delivery service.

While bars and restaurants will be allowed to offer full indoor capacity this week, it remains to be seen how quickly customer numbers will bounce back to normal levels as more Londoners get comfortable with going out.

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“I do believe it’s going to come back. I don’t think it’s going to be overnight that we are going to be … 100 per cent, or the levels pre-pandemic,” said Jerry Pribil, owner of Chaucer’s Pub and Marienbad Restaurant.

“I do believe the Fridays and Saturdays are going to come back much faster … the weekdays it’s going to take longer because it has to do a lot with people working at home,” and not going out for lunch or gathering after work, he said.

As well, Pribil says consumer confidence has been lower when it comes to going out and dining indoors, something he believes will change now that restrictions are being eased, and that public health indicators are improving.

During his announcement on Monday, Premier Ford said the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests had dropped to 13 per cent from a peak of nearly 40 per cent, and that hospitalizations were down under 1,400 from a high of more than 4,000.

“I honestly believe, and the feedback I’ve been receiving the last two weeks from my customers are really positive, and I do believe consumer confidence is going to come back quickly, and people are eager and looking forward to going outside,” Pribil said.

For Thompson, he says he believes that more people will venture out once restrictions are lifted and it becomes clearer what they’re allowed to do once at the pub.

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Right now, bar and restaurant patrons are limited 10 to a table, and must remain seated with exceptions, such as going to the bathroom. Dancing and singing is also not allowed, including by performing karaoke.

“On Fridays I can have bands, but on Saturday, which is one of our busier nights, I can’t have karaoke yet. I’m hoping that … will probably be lifted with all this other new stuff coming,” he said.

Read more: Ontario’s accelerated reopening ‘a positive step toward recovery,’ business organization says

According to the province, health units can “deploy local and regional responses based on local context and conditions,” and businesses may choose whether to continue requiring proof of vaccination themselves, something London Mayor Ed Holder said could be seen as a competitive advantage for some establishments.

“I don’t see this so much now as forcing restaurants, bars and other venues to drop their mandates,” he said during Monday’s scheduled COVID-19 media briefing. “You might be surprised. There may well be some who determined that that’s a competitive advantage to do so … for the sake of health.”

However, Pribil, Smith and Thompson all say they won’t require proof of vaccination come March 1.

“What was the point of doing that for?” Thompson said of the QR code requirement, which came into effect on Jan. 4. “We’ve been open for like three weeks now, so it’s going to be gone in a week.”

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“Training staff how to use the app, getting it all on their phone, and then the potential customers we already knew were vaxxed still had to go and get this other step to put it onto their phones … it just makes no sense.”

For Pribil, while he believes checking vaccination status would help make customers more comfortable and increase consumer confidence quicker, he says those without proof of vaccination would still have the right to stay at the restaurant, “and we would not deny this right to anyone.”

“If there is someone who shows up and says ‘I don’t have it. I haven’t (been) vaccinated,’ there’s no requirement or legal base to even ask the people to leave, and I don’t think any of the restaurants would do that,” he said.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said though Monday’s announcement felt like a true step toward small businesses’ economic recovery, it sought clarity for those that chose to maintain proof of vaccination.

“Just telling them that they’re free to keep it — does that mean that they’re free to keep it without risks of a human rights case or lawsuit?” said CFIB president Dan Kelly.

“I suspect not. And so I do believe that businesses will be taking on potentially some legal risk if they maintain a proof-of-vaccination system in their business.”

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“It’s gone, it’s gone,” said Smith when asked whether he would continue checking proof of vaccination. “It’s the fact that we had to tell a large number of our customers they couldn’t come in. That’s not what you want to do in the service business.”

“There’s always going to be a (new) variant. But at what point do we move on? It will never go away … There’s a lot of people that have lost their jobs, and a lot of those jobs aren’t coming back. I think you’ll see a lot of closures in the future … The industry, it really needs a lot of help.”

In a news conference earlier this month, Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said that as Canada emerges from the “Omicron wave,” it was important for governments to recognize that the virus isn’t going to disappear.

“We need to be able to address the ongoing presence of the SARS‑CoV‑2 virus in a more sustainable way,” she said. “The virus will continue to evolve so we need to also continue to evolve our measures, recognizing that further waves will occur.”

Speaking with The Canadian Press earlier this month, Prof. Bernard Crespi, an evolutionary biologist at Simon Fraser University, said a shift from pandemic to full endemic could take anywhere from a few years to perhaps dozens or hundreds of years.

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However, he noted there was always the possibility that a new variant could come along that would be as infectious as Omicron but be worse in terms of hospitalizations and deaths.

Dr. Nelson Lee, interim director of the Institute for Pandemics at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, told The Canadian Press that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was unpredictable.

“There are people thinking that maybe the virus is evolving to a stage that it’s getting mild and that it will cause really trivial disease that we can ignore,” he said. “I disagree with that.”

Rather than an endemic, he said he believed the virus would transition to an epidemic with seasonal waves.

— with files from The Canadian Press

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