Restaurants prepare to serve up safety with reopenings just weeks away

The idea of waiting restaurant tables in just a few weeks has an Edmonton server feeling nervous about returning to work when worries about coronavirus are still high.

Some employees are nervous about potential risk of a return to sit-down service

Sybil Danyk-White, 22, was temporarily laid off from her server job due to the pandemic. Now she is nervous about returning back to work. (Alyssa Pierre)

The idea of waiting restaurant tables in just a few weeks has an Edmonton server feeling nervous about returning to work when worries about coronavirus are still high.

Last week, Premier Jason Kenney announced that if Alberta's health orders continue to flatten the curve on COVID-19, businesses including restaurants, cafes and bars could begin to reopen — with restrictions — starting May 14.

Sybil Danyk-White, a 22-year-old University of Alberta student, was temporarily laid off at the end of March from her job at a pizza restaurant in south Edmonton. She is worried the move to reopen is coming too soon.

"If you have a customer come in who is infected but [is] not showing symptoms, I'm very worried about what that is going to mean," she said. 

"I don't see why we can't continue with this take-out [and] delivery system, until at least we're further down the peak."

Danyk-White hasn't yet heard from her managers about what reopening would look like, including procedures that would be in place for staff and the use of personal protective equipment.

She also feels stressed about going back to work without fully understanding her rights as a worker. 

"Without that, I am super not comfortable," she said.

"I don't know if people will have issues with their servers wearing masks and gloves," she said. "How much protection am I going to be afforded?"

Guidelines for safe operations

One Edmonton restaurant has already decided it will continue with only take-out and delivery until at least June 1. 

The owner of Northern Chicken, located in the 124th Street shopping district, said a May 14 reopening is too soon for his comfort. 

"Our staff safety is important to us," said Matt Phillips. "Rather than making a few extra bucks, we would much rather be safe and continue with the model where we are not having contact with the customer."

Phillips also pointed out that, unlike restaurants that have had to shut operations, his business had been doing really well during the pandemic. 

The Alberta government has said cafés and restaurants, including licensed establishments that allow minors, can reopen for public seating at 50 per cent capacity.

Guidelines are in the works to ensure the safety of both employees and customers as restaurants reopen, said Mark von Schellwitz, western vice-president for Restaurants Canada. On Thursday, the association provided a best practices document to the province and to its members. 

"Basically that they have strong physical distancing measures in place," he said.

Fear of losing CERB by refusing to work

The measures include keeping a two-metre distance or a physical barrier between tables, the use of disposable or easy-to-clean laminate menus, a supply of PPE for servers and new cleaning and sanitation protocols.

The guidelines also suggest restaurants avoid sharing trays and ask guests to refill their own water glasses. Establishments are encouraged to have a dedicated person to ensure health and safety standards are met, said von Schellwitz.

For Danyk-White, her return to work will depend on whether her restaurant will allow her to wear gloves and a mask.

She is also worried that if she refuses to go back to work, she might lose the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) that she is currently receiving. 

"If you are choosing to not go to work and the option is there, it makes you ineligible for CERB, and I definitely need CERB," she said. 

Help available from OHS

She wonders if the dress codes of some restaurants might see management teams disallowing servers from wearing  appropriate protective gear. 

"If it came down to it and I felt that I was in a dangerous position, or I didn't feel like I was being protected by my employers, yes, I would quit," she said. 

 But Dan Bokenfohr, an employment lawyer, doesn't believe it would come to that. 

"There is a process through Occupational Health and Safety legislation where those sorts of complaints can be raised and an employer and a worker can get third-party assistance in trying to mediate those disputes," he said. 

"If need be, the occupational health and safety officer would make the final call on whether the employer has done enough to protect the safety or not in this particular circumstance."


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