Business owners cast blame on city, provincial governments for second-wave shutdown

Canoe Restaurant, owned by Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality, was forced to close its doors for the second time since the start of the pandemic after the province imposed a ban on indoor dining. Canoe Restaurant

Business owners impacted by the abrupt closure of fitness centres and the ban on indoor dining in parts of Ontario last week are lashing out against the City of Toronto and the Ontario government for imposing “blanket rules” on establishments that they claim have not contributed to the spread of COVID-19. 

“Truthfully, I am hurt. We did everything we could to make sure our restaurants were safe. This is yet again another careless and foolish act by the government,” said Steven Salm, CEO of Chase Hospitality Group which owns six restaurants in Toronto including The Chase and Kasa Moto, high-end eateries in downtown Toronto.

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Talking Point

Business owners in Toronto are pointing fingers at the Toronto and Ontario governments for inadequate contact-tracing measures that they believe forced the blanket ban of indoor dining as COVID-19 cases soared in the early weeks of September. Many restaurants and fitness centres affected by the ban say they had little to no cases of COVID-19 in their establishments, and are now facing the prospect of shutting down altogether after just three months of being allowed to stay open.

After a surge in infections and significant pressure from public health officials, Ontario imposed a minimum 28-day moratorium on indoor dining and decreed the shutdown of all fitness centres, banquet halls and movie theatres in Toronto, Ottawa and Peel Region starting October 10, barely three months after those businesses were given the green light to reopen with strict protocols in place. 

According to Toronto Public Health, 27 of 80 community outbreaks in the city were linked to bars and restaurants, as of October 7—evidence used to justify the closure of indoor dining. Data obtained by the Toronto Star showed that workers from the food, beverage and retail industries filed just 48 compensation claims for COVID-19 outbreaks—the bulk of outbreaks from the start of the pandemic took place at agricultural facilities, long-term care homes and hospitals. 

Salm takes particular issue with the fact that his restaurants followed every guideline recommended by Toronto Public Health, including collecting the contact information of every single diner for tracing purposes, only to be told by the City that they had abandoned contract-tracing efforts due to a “lack of resources.” 

“My frustration is that we did our part, and we were finally building up momentum in terms of getting people to feel confident to dine out again, and then I hear the City is saying, ‘Oh, we don’t have enough contact tracers, we’re abandoning the program, so it is safer to shut everything down,’” he said. 

In April, Toronto implemented the Coronavirus Rapid Entry Case and Contact Management System, a contact-tracing program separate from the province’s own initiative, hiring hundreds of contact tracers that were in charge of tracking the spread of the virus. But as new cases began to climb rapidly in the early weeks of fall, the City made the decision on October 2 to divert its 700 contact tracers to areas or establishments that were the “highest risk,” like long-term care homes, effectively deserting the program. 

“The viral spread in Toronto demanded quick, aggressive action now and we changed the way we do case and contact,” Toronto Public Health spokesperson Dr. Vinita Dubey told The Logic. “With the rapidly rising case numbers, even doubling our existing contact tracers will not enable us to control the spread in Toronto, since case numbers are doubling every 1 to 2 weeks,” she added. 

On Wednesday, Ontario announced it had hired 600 new contact tracers, 200 which were being deployed to Toronto. 

“It’s too late,” said Andrew Oliver, CEO of Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality, with regards to the contact-tracing initiative. He told The Logic that when a handful of his employees tested positive for COVID-19, they struggled to reach Toronto Public Health to figure out what to do next, though the restaurant had carefully kept a log of all customers that had come into contact with the employees. 

“I’m not surprised that contact tracing failed. They are overwhelmed. A huge chunk of this story is mismanagement on the city’s part, and it is morally abhorrent that we have governments now advocating for the destruction of our industry by shutting us down,” he said. 

In Toronto’s west end, yoga instructor Morgan Cowie had to close her business for the second time in a row over the Thanksgiving weekend, now leaving her on the brink of shutting down altogether. When the pandemic hit, Mosaic Yoga had to pivot to hosting classes online, losing more than 60 per cent in revenue from a combination of refunds on memberships and a sharp decline in the number of people who were willing to pay for online yoga classes. 

Two months into reopening, the studio is back at square one, despite investing thousands of dollars into enhanced cleaning protocols after every class, and not a single COVID-19 case in its midst. Cowie’s landlord refused to apply for the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program, so she has continued paying rent throughout the pandemic. 

“We are being put in the same bucket as bars and clubs on King Street. We literally keep our masks on the entire time, and we are never closer than six feet. We couldn’t be following the guidelines more rigorously,” she said. 

Cowie had to let most of her staff go in April, and has not hired back many of them for the fear that a renewed shutdown would occur. For small fitness centres like Mosaic, converting to online classes is a significant expense because of the labour and technology involved in filming, editing and ensuring a clear stream—Cowie notes that large fitness giants like Peloton and GoodLife Fitness have the resources to quickly shift to online classes, but for her, the payoff isn’t necessarily there. 

“It’s a bit of a David versus Goliath situation. We can’t afford to just charge $10 to $20 for a month. Our advantage is in-person training,” she said. 

For Jeff and Nuit Regular, owners of popular Toronto Thai restaurant Pai, business has declined substantially since the indoor-dining ban. They are earning just 30 per cent of their pre-pandemic revenue, but they anticipate that they will be able to pull through the next 28 days relying on takeout orders. In fact, the Regulars are in favour of a blanket shutdown. “I’d rather have a complete lockdown so we get this virus in control quickly, rather than reopening for a bit and shutting down again … over and over,” Nuit told The Logic. 

She had a positive experience with Toronto Public Health after two of Pai’s employees tested positive in August—the health officials were readily available to guide them through the closure and reopening of the restaurant, she said. 

Both Oliver and Salm expect their revenues for the duration of the shutdown to be just 10 to 20 per cent of what they usually are, given that none of the restaurants in both the Chase and O&B chains are particularly popular for takeout. Oliver has already started to lay off some of his staff, and is now waiting for details of the federal government’s new rent-subsidy program that promises to help businesses foot their rent bills in proportion to their depletion in revenue. 

“Ultimately if they say they are going to pay 90 per cent of my rent in Toronto, that’s great, we’ll be able to push through. But I need to first see if we qualify,” he added.

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Meanwhile, he’s attempting to drum up support from fellow industry members to push the City to freeze the collection of property taxes from businesses that have been forced to shut down. So far, he has the backing of the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB), the biggest lobby group for small businesses. 

“Everything is on the table,” said Laura Jones, executive vice-president and chief strategic officer of the CFIB, in reference to a potential property-tax freeze. “Businesses are being asked to make huge economic sacrifices so there should be adequate compensation in place for those sacrifices.”