London

As the virus gains ground, London restaurants fear further restrictions on dining

There is worry among restauranteurs of further pandemic restrictions on indoor and outdoor dining as the coronavirus gains ground, putting hundreds of jobs at stake along with a major sector of the city's economy.

Hundreds of jobs are at stake, along with a major sector of the city's economy

A server in a face shield and masks speaks to customers at Chuck's Roadhouse on Richmond Street. The city's restauranteurs say more severe pandemic restrictions placed on business could hurt their bottom line. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

As the coronavirus gains ground, the city's hospitality industry fears further pandemic restrictions imposed on indoor and outdoor dining could put hundreds of jobs at stake along with a major lifeblood of the city's economy. 

Under Ontario's five-coloured COVID-19 response framework, the London region is currently in the 'yellow zone,' but the province may impose stricter conditions as the number of new local cases continues to rise, potentially moving the London region into the orange or even red zone within a matter of days. 

On Thursday, London region health authorities announced 43 new cases of the virus and two deaths, the second highest tally recorded in a single day since the pandemic began. The highest being the record-breaking 48 new cases recorded on Wednesday. 

The majority of those cases have been linked to a single outbreak at University Hospital that, as of Thursday, killed 11 people after it infected 123 people. In response, the hospital has cancelled all but its most urgent surgeries until further notice. 

'We could even move into the red zone,' says top doc

On top of thinning out their tables, restaurants throughout the city have seen fewer customers in their dinning rooms as people are encouraged to stay home and avoid crowds in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The region's medical officer of health, Dr. Chris Mackie told a virtual news conference Thursday that if the rate of new infections continues on its present course, it's enough to meet the threshold for the province to further tighten restrictions on the community. 

"Our percentage positivity as well is well over 1.3 per cent, which is the cut off for the orange zone. We could even move into the red zone sometime soon, but we have to see of those numbers continue for the next few days."

If the province decides to move the London region into the orange zone, it means that while establishments can have up to 50 people dine indoors, there would be a limit of four people per table and establishments would only be allowed to be open between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. with liquor served between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.

"We only do business after nine, so basically I have to close my doors," said Tom Sada, the owner of three Chuck's Roadhouse locations in the city, including the popular downtown location. 

'Orange will kill us'

Tom Sada is the owner of a fleet of Chuck's Roadhouse restaurants in London. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

He said the current restrictions since March have already put a big dent in his bottom line and he fears more will only make a bad situation worse. 

"We had to let a lot of employees go because we were basically doing less than half sales. It's killed us basically." 

The first big hit came in March when the pandemic arrived, Sada said he and his colleagues were forced to shut their doors for three months, only to emerge from the lockdown to a ban on indoor dining. 

He paid $20,000 to turn the parking lot of his downtown location into a patio, which saw strong sales until September when a second wave washed over the city with the return of students.

"We have a lot of staff watching all the customers. We make sure they follow the rules 100 per cent," Sada said. "Now they're telling us orange, or it could be red, who knows? Orange will kill us already."

Restaurants argue restrictions will drive people to party unsupervised

If the London region goes to the 'orange zone,' establishments would only be able to serve liquor until 9 p.m., a move that would essentially shut down the city's public nightlife. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"This is the hospital. These are the doctors and nurses. Why are they shutting us down because of something that happened in the hospital? They make me suffer because of them, how is that fair?"

When that question was put to Dr. Chris Mackie on Thursday, he was quick to defend his colleagues in healthcare. 

"I think hospital employees are humans," he said. "The last significant outbreak that we had was at a restaurant where staff weren't necessarily following masking rules or distancing rules. So I don't think it's fair for one part of our society to case blame on the other, this is happening in many places."

But restauranteurs argue that the outbreak Mackie mentioned at the news conference actually began at a house party, before spreading to a number of downtown establishments. 

People don't get so close when they know they're being watched

Jerry Pribil is the owner of Chaucer's Pub and the Marienbad Restaurant in downtown London. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The stricter conditions, they argue, that come with the province imposing an orange or red zone would only serve to drive people away from public places where they have to follow the rules and into private dwellings where no-one is watching. 

"As an industry I think we're doing a fine job," said Jerry Pribil, the owner of Chaucer's Pub and the Marienbad Restaurant on Carling Street. 

The last four weekends in a row Pribil has hosted events at his businesses ranging from 18 to 38 people for family celebrations, including a wedding. He said in each case, the family chose his business because they believed it was the responsible thing to do. 

"The reason why is the aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas, they're going to hug and kiss each other," he said, noting they all kept their distance in his restaurant because they knew staff were watching. 

Pribil said while the restaurant business can't control what the province chooses to impose, it can urge caution in going too far, too soon lest it do irreversible damage to an industry that is an important lifeblood for the city's economic vitality. 

"These steps back are going to be very harmful. This orange zone is going to be much more difficult for some of my colleagues who depend on the later crowd." 

"If they're going to restrict us, restrict us, but don't restrict us with norms that make it so we can't survive anymore."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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