Pressure is mounting on the Ontario government to lift its pandemic limits on restaurants, after the industry responded with outrage to news that certain venues – such as the arena where the Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors start their regular seasons this week – have been cleared to operate at full capacity.
Frustration boiled over at a virtual meeting held Tuesday morning with restaurant industry representatives who were expecting Lisa MacLeod, the province’s Minister of Heritage, Tourism and Culture, to listen to their concerns. But she did not show. Instead, she sent senior staff and ministry officials.
Just a few days prior, in a late-afternoon news release issued on the Friday before Thanksgiving weekend, the government had announced that concert venues, theatres and sports arenas could operate at 100-per-cent capacity. The release noted that the province’s new proof-of-vaccination requirements provide an added layer of COVID-19 protection in those spaces.
But physical-distancing rules remain in place for restaurants, which are subject to the same proof-of-vaccination requirements. Until the distancing rules are changed, customers must be seated two metres apart.
This leaves many Ontario restaurants at half capacity or less, industry leaders say, even as thousands of Leafs and Raptors fans will be able to eat and drink side-by-side in a packed arena. With patio season drawing to a close, some restaurant owners fear they will go under without more capacity indoors. Many have already bled cash throughout the province’s various lockdowns.
John Sinopoli, owner of Toronto’s Ascari Hospitality Group and the founder of an industry group called SaveHospitality.ca, was on Tuesday’s call. He said in an interview that he was stunned that Ms. MacLeod would skip a meeting with the industry during what he called a “crisis moment,” as some restaurants face bankruptcy. He said Health Minister Christine Elliott was invited as well, but also sent a senior staffer.
He said the government could not offer a rationale or any data to back up treating the restaurant industry differently. And officials did not offer a timeline for when restaurants might get some relief, saying only that the government is developing “the contours of what a plan might look like” to lift restrictions.
“The few corporate giants got their way, got their wish,” Mr. Sinopoli said of the decision to open up capacity for the city’s top professional sports teams just before their home openers.
He said the meeting soured after Carlo Oliviero, Premier Doug Ford’s executive director of stakeholder relations, asked the industry not to air its concerns in the press. Mr. Sinopoli said he and other industry figures told the government representatives that some restaurant owners might ignore Ontario’s rules if they aren’t changed. And the restaurateurs warned that failing to act could lead to repercussions for Mr. Ford in next year’s election.
A spokesperson for Ms. MacLeod, Derek Rowland, said Tuesday’s meeting was organized to give the restaurant business “the earliest opportunity to provide feedback to the government.” He said Ms. MacLeod missed the meeting because she was with two other cabinet ministers at the Ottawa Hospital, whose plans for a large new facility go before Ottawa City Council on Wednesday.
Alexandra Hilkene, a spokesperson for Ms. Elliott, said the province had seen “limited transmission” of COVID-19 in the sectors where capacity limits were lifted. Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore, Ms. Hilkene said, would keep monitoring data and “evaluate when it may be safe to consider lifting limits in other settings.”
Speaking at an unrelated government announcement in Vaughan, Ont., Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips said the province was listening to restaurants and other small businesses. But he said the government had to maintain its “cautious approach” and follow Dr. Moore’s advice.
“We all want to get past COVID, but we’re also able to see, not so far away, some of the challenges where some jurisdictions have moved quickly,” Mr. Phillips said.
Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association, was also on Tuesday’s call. He told The Globe he believed the government would change what he called an unfair policy. He said he had been in touch with “government leadership” – including Mr. Ford – over the weekend and that they were supportive. But he said he did not know how quickly the government would act.
“The industry at this point is furious,” Mr. Elenis said. “They want this changed and they want it changed ASAP, because they are talking about survival, many of them.”
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told reporters that Friday’s decision shows Mr. Ford cares more about big businesses than small restaurant owners.
“We need to take care of the little guy, not just the big fish,” she said at an event in North Bay.
With a report from Laura Stone
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