Restaurant owners frustrated, angered to hear public health never recommended dining room shutdown

After Quebec's public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, revealed he never recommended the province's shutdown of restaurant dining rooms earlier this fall, restaurant owners are fuming, and calling out Quebec's premier for going against public health's advice.

'We know now that we're not the cause because the numbers haven't gone down,' says restaurant owner

Quebec's public health director says he recommended keeping restaurant dining rooms open during the fall, but the premier thought otherwise. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Restaurant owners are dealing with a mix of sadness, frustration and anger after the province's public health director said he did not recommend restaurant dining rooms in red zones be shut down earlier this fall, but the Legault government thought otherwise.

Dr. Horacio Arruda made the revelation Wednesday while appearing before the National Assembly's parliamentary committee. It was Arruda's first appearance since the start of the pandemic.

"We had recommended that they could potentially stay open," Arruda said in reference to restaurant dining rooms. "When it comes to the approach and the perception of banning gatherings in homes while leaving zones where there are gatherings, the government made a different decision."

Arruda said he would have preferred dining rooms remain open, allowing customers to eat at a table as long as they were part of the same "family bubble." He added that he understood the government's decision, given how difficult it would be to allow some groups to dine out, but not others.

Restaurant dining rooms have been closed in the Montreal, Quebec City, and Chaudière-Appalaches regions since Oct. 1, and other regions have become red zones since then.

According to the province's restaurants association, the fall shutdown — the second time dining rooms have been closed during the pandemic — has left many establishments in financial ruin.

"In 2020, dining rooms in restaurants will have been closed for six months, so half the year," said François Meunier, the association's vice-president of public and government affairs. "We estimate that it would be about $5-$6 billion in sales that will disappear."

Stephen Leslie, owner of Monkland Tavern and Tavern on the Square, says he was flabbergasted when he heard the government's decision to shut down restaurants this fall went against public health's advice. (CBC)

'Whose advice are you following?'

In the weeks that followed the first round of red-zone closures — which also included bars, gyms, movie theatres and museums — the daily number of COVID-19 cases appeared to reach a plateau.

Last month, however, cases, hospitalizations and deaths began to surge. On several occasions, the province's daily COVID-19 report established new records for coronavirus infections, climbing above 2,000 cases last Saturday.

For many restaurant owners, the rising number of cases strengthened their belief that their establishments were not part of the problem.

"We know now that we're not the cause because the numbers haven't gone down," said Stephen Leslie, co-owner of the Monkland Tavern.

"We all want to be part of the solution, not the problem and I think we'd feel a bit better about our closing if we knew we were working toward a solution."

Leslie says his phone was buzzing on Wednesday, with many of his friends in the restaurant business sending him text messages to let him know what Arruda had said.

"It's quite shocking, I'm flabbergasted," Leslie said in reference to the government's decision to go against public health's recommendation to keep dining rooms open.

"Whose advice are you following?"

In light of the fall's red-zone shutdowns, the province attempted to expand its COVID-19 assistance program for businesses in need, by allowing up to 80 per cent of a maximum loan of $50,000 to be forgiven.

Restaurant owners have criticized that plan, saying the process to get the money was too complicated and mired in red tape.

Owners are now calling on the province for more direct financial aid and a clear plan for the beginning of the new year.

The latest round of red-zone restrictions are in place until at least Jan. 11.

Health Minister Christian Dubé stands by the government's decision to shut down restaurant dining rooms earlier this fall. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Health minister defends decision

On Thursday, Health Minister Christian Dubé defended the government's decision, saying there are times where its choices will deviate from public health recommendations.

Dubé said the government did not want to take a chance by allowing gatherings in restaurants.

He also revealed the latest daily total of cases reported by the province — more than 1,800 — and challenged members of the opposition to say whether they think those numbers would be better if restaurants had stayed open.

"Where would be today if we didn't close bars and restaurants?'' said Dubé. "I stand by every decision we took in the last few months, the easy ones and the not-so easy ones."

He added that many restaurant owners told the government they would rather shut down than operate with even more reduced capacity.

"Let's be clear on this," Dubé said. "This is the reason we made that decision, because the recommendation that was made to us was not practical."

With files from CBC's John MacFarlane and Radio-Canada