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Restaurant and bar owners across Toronto are calling on Premier Doug Ford to lift the 9 p.m. 'last call' to order, in anticipation of the long-awaited, but eventual, reopening of outdoor dining.
The Government of Ontario released the COVID-19 Response Framework on Nov. 3, 2020, outlining the safety measures that restaurant owners and hospitality workers in the Red and Orange zones must undertake. The list includes, but is not limited to, a 50 per cent capacity, reduced operating hours and, the most dreaded of all, a 9 p.m. last call.
This summer, the provincial government may follow a similar model. Despite the fact that the colour-coded framework has been abandoned, there has been no news concerning the restaurant business and the particular procedures that must be followed.
"Toronto's restaurant industry has been hit particularly hard, and a 9 p.m. last call isn't going to make things any better," said Adam Slight, a manager at Toronto's Paupers Pub. "For many bars and restaurants, the majority of their business occurs after 9 p.m."
Slight fears that conditions will only worsen if Toronto's last call remains unchanged.
"Not only will the restaurant industry suffer financially, but we will also be setting up unsafe conditions that attract unlawful gatherings. Unfortunately, a 9 p.m. last call isn't going to stop individuals from finding other places to go, and such sites are frequently unregulated and unmanaged," Slight added.
In response, Slight has created an online form letter, which he invites hospitality workers from all over to sign and send to Premier Ford.
"There is no evidence to support that an earlier last call has any preventative effect on the spread of COVID-19. By expanding our hours, we can offer these bar-goers a regulated and protected space to socialize in and prevent the unsafe, but inevitable illegal gathering," says Slight.
Not to mention, if the provincial government decides to uphold these restrictions, countless establishments will continue to face a variety of challenges, such as workforce reduction.
"On a normal Saturday, we would have 10 to 12 staff working in a day. But by the end of things, we could only support around three staff members," said Slight. "And if this continues, most of our hospitality workers will remain unemployed or will be forced to work at multiple restaurants, potentially increasing the spread of COVID-19."
The pandemic has prolonged many business owners' struggles for well over a year, with no concrete regulations to help keep them open and survive. Following Ontario's third lockdown in April, a slew of restaurants were either forced to close forever, or voluntarily shut down indefinitely in response to the province's lack of guidance and compassion. A later ordering time could possibly be an incentive for restaurants to keep the lights on this late in the pandemic.
"Few industries have felt the impact of the coronavirus pandemic more than the restaurant industry, and at this point, anything will help," said Ivan Castro, the head chef and owner of La Bartola. "We've made the decision to close, so news like this is what we are looking forward to hearing. Though minimal, these few extra hours can serve as our saving grace."
Although Slight and Castro recognize that there are many considerations to keep in mind when prioritizing public health, all that they ask for is an opportunity to help out Toronto's restaurant industry in a time of disruption and loss.
"I take the pandemic very seriously and know that lockdowns are necessary for combating the spread of COVID-19. And even though this may not be a priority right now, I want restaurants to be included in the conversation when the time comes. I want to make sure that we are considered in the process, and more than anything, I want more than six hours' notice when it happens," said Slight.
The province announced plans yesterday to reopen Ontario gradually over the next few months, which will include the reintroduction of outdoor dining in limited capacity beginning around mid-June. While this is great news for patient restaurants who have undergone massive changes over the past year, there is more that can be done to support them after a tremendously heavy year of restrictions.
Slight and Castro remain optimistic that the provincial government will take the necessary measures to assist Toronto's restaurant and bar owners, once lockdowns lift.