Adam Slight is the general manager of Paupers Pub in Toronto.
I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help myself – I read the comments sections on news sites. And all it takes is one trip through those comments to find armies of armchair epidemiologists with their own strategies on how to stem the spread of COVID-19 while protecting Canada’s economy. Without fail, the heated discussions always make their way back to the role restaurants and bars play within Canada’s pandemic solution.
Restaurants and bars play a near essential role in society. After all, depression and loneliness is on the rise, and not everyone has a loving family to spend time with during household-only lockdowns. Not to mention, we don’t all enjoy the food security required to cook nourishing meals at home. Restaurants provide a highly regulated setting for the public to safely socialize and eat in, all under the watchful eye of our municipal and provincial regulating bodies.
Since we reopened our pub in June, we have seen people from all walks of life fill our seats – senior citizens, nurses, teachers, first responders, many praising us for how safe they felt at our tables. It’s enough to throw the stereotype of bars full of selfish young partiers out with the fry grease.
But after a handful of publicized outbreaks and crammed patios put restaurant transmissions into the public imagination, regulating restaurants has become the government’s go-to pandemic play in the place of real public health action.
So here we are once more: the screws are tightening again on restaurants in Toronto, in an attempt to straddle the line between public safety and economic re-opening. The latest COVID-19 restrictions impose a four-person table limit and 9pm last call on dining, which continues to be relegated to outdoor spaces.
Most agree that restaurants should not run unfettered while the pandemic continues. But like any other business, we don’t fare well when the ground shifts beneath us, nor when someone installs what has been referred to as a “dimmer switch” on our industry, which seems to callously understate the reality of what a lowered light means: the end of thousands of people’s livelihoods. And what governments just don’t seem to realize is that, by specifically targeting restaurants as part of their spectacle of control, they could actually be increasing the risk of COVID-19 transmission, not preventing it.
The waves of restrictions and regulations aimed at bars and restaurants make it next to impossible for them to run a profit. In our kitchen, every time the rules change, we are forced to throw out thousands of dollars of food. Our 34-year-old pub is more established and can stomach these losses. But that’s not the case for everyone. Throwing a refrigerator’s worth of food away can be enough to put a smaller, newer restaurant out of business – or in a position where they feel they have to sidestep the rules to survive.
With less money in hand, many establishments will have no choice but to divert attention away from maintaining a safe dining space just so they can perform the basic functions of running a business. The government is forcing many restaurateurs to make an awful choice between cutting corners or going bankrupt – and like it or not, this will inevitably create more “bad apples,” as some proprietors will invariably consider desperate, law-bending measures just to stay afloat.
Resources are tight, and staffs are stretched thin. As required by government, the hard-working employees at my pub, along with our sister pub The Madison, have been collecting contact-tracing information for more than 70,000 guests since reopening in June. Yet we have not received a single follow-up from a public health agency for any of these guests. Either we’re doing a superhuman job screening and sanitizing, or they’re doing an awful job contact tracing; we think it’s both. Now, with Ontario demanding the mandatory collection of completed health questionnaires from each guest, we’re left wondering if that extra work on our part will even be useful.
Governments don’t want to bear the bad optics of closing restaurants entirely. But they also don’t seem prepared to pay restaurants to remain closed for the sake of public safety – a strategy that some, including former New York Times writer Elisabeth Rosenthal, have put forward. Instead, they’re squeezing their eyes tight and letting economic forces do their dirty work.
And as a result of these restrictions, there’s even more incentive for Canadians to gather together at someone’s home, against public-health advice. Under a four-person table limit, a family of five or more from separate households wouldn’t be able to sit together at a safely regulated restaurant – and let’s be real, families are going to be doing just that with the holiday season approaching. No amount of finger wagging by a politician or public health official will be able to cancel Christmas.
So where will people gather now, if not inside at home? Limiting restaurants this holiday season could send COVID-19 cases surging.
What we lack from our leaders is ownership of a concrete plan, and confidence that they can act on it. Instead, public officials are sticking to the pandemic strategy they know best: placing the responsibility on the individual, scolding Canadians to not to leave their homes, yet leaving restaurants open for business. Their messaging only leaves the public confused, uninspired, and left to follow their own inexpert interpretations.
How will restaurants survive under these new restrictions? Many may pivot to focus on late-night takeout alcohol sales at the new 9 p.m. last call. Where will this alcohol be consumed after 9 p.m.? Governments don’t seem to care about all that. But I bet that wherever it is, they won’t collect contact tracing, or sanitize the doorknobs every hour, or operate under the regulations that the government continues to press upon us.
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