Just in time for warmer weekend temperatures and sunny skies, restaurant patios are cleared to open in Toronto and Peel Region after a long winter’s lockdown.
But moves to dramatically increase the number of diners allowed to eat inside restaurants in regions including the red zones of Halton, Durham, York and Hamilton — which are no longer in lockdown — are raising serious concerns about fuelling the spread of COVID-19 as a third wave of the pandemic builds.
The changes announced Friday by Premier Doug Ford’s government came shortly after Halton Region’s public health unit warned patrons of an Oakville steak house they had been exposed to a more contagious variant of the virus and should get tested immediately.
“I’ve got no problem at all with outdoor dining. Will it be perfect? No. But it’s relatively safe, and I think it should be expanded,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at the University Health Network.
“But packing more people into an indoor setting, especially when they’re not wearing masks the whole time? That will lead to more outbreaks. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a restaurant or a church or a workplace of some kind. It’s as simple as that.”
Indoors or outdoors, there must be two metres of physical distance between tables, and tables will be limited to members of the same household, with exceptions for people who live alone or require caregivers.
In red zones, one stage below lockdown, maximum customer limits in restaurants and bars will rise to 50 people from 10 at any one time, a fivefold increase if physical distancing between tables allows. In the next lower, or orange level, of restrictions, 100 diners will be allowed indoors if the establishment is large enough.
The changes were revealed in a news release and neither Ford nor chief medical officer Dr. David Williams — who this week acknowledged Ontario is in a third wave of COVID-19 — appeared before the media to take questions.
“To support the province’s economic recovery, the government is cautiously adjusting dining capacity limits at restaurants, bars and other food and drink establishments,” a statement said.
But there may not be time for some bars and restaurants to get service in place for Saturday or Sunday because the announcement did not come until dinnertime Friday.
“It’s a start, that’s for sure,” said a relieved Ron Keefe, owner of the midtown brew pub Granite Brewery. “There’s no way we’ll be ready for tomorrow. Maybe Tuesday. Our draft lines haven’t been operating in months.”
Restaurants Canada vice-president James Rilett praised the changes to outdoor dining and restaurant capacity as “exactly what we were looking for,” and but noted fickle spring weather could complicate the patio situation.
“It depends on the weather,” he said.
Although there will be none of the outdoor haircuts many residents of Toronto and Peel Region were hoping for after almost four months in lockdown, the province said stay tuned for other changes to ease restrictions “where the risk of transmission is minimized.”
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But it was the Oakville steak house situation that raised questions about easing restrictions on indoor dining.
Halton public health issued a warning that patrons of Oliver’s Steakhouse on Lakeshore Rd. had been “exposed to a COVID-19 variant of concern” during a six-day period between March 8 and 13.
“While public health is attempting to call these patrons, this effort may take some time,” the health unit said in a statement. “We’re asking all such patrons to self-isolate for 14 days after their visit to the restaurant and to get tested for COVID-19.”
Oliver’s was open Friday night and a spokesman who would not identify himself said the restaurant had closed until all staff had tested negative. He also questioned why the health unit put out the statement.
“Why are they telling people now? They knew about it,” said the spokesman.
Health officials have warned the COVID-19 variants of concern can spread from one person to another in just a few minutes of unmasked close contact.
“The fact that indoor dining is being pushed when we are now clearly in the third wave is beyond comprehension,” said Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious diseases specialist at University Health Network, citing “loopholes” that will allow people who do not live in the same home to gather at tables.
“I’m really tired of sending 30- and 50-somethings to the ICU.”
Overall, cases of the COVID-19 have increased 39 per cent across the province in the last two weeks, as measured by the seven-day moving average, which smooths out daily fluctuations.
The controversial restaurant capacity changes came as Ontario’s big city mayors called in a statement for “safe adjustments to the restrictive lockdown measures that were necessary at the start of the pandemic.”
“Feedback from restaurateurs continues to be that, in most cases, the hard cap (on the number of diners permitted) does not make reopening their businesses viable,” the mayors said, pushing for capacity limits based on “the safe, socially distanced customer floor area of restaurants, not a fixed number of patrons.”
The province also announced the regions of Brant, Chatham-Kent and Leeds, Grenville and Lanark in eastern Ontario are being moved up into the more restrictive red zone of the province’s five-tier, colour-coded framework starting Monday because of increases in cases.
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
Josh Rubin is a Toronto-based business reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @starbeer
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