New Brunswick

For restaurants, keeping track of COVID-19 rule changes is a challenge

Restaurant owners say they're hitting their stride a month after they were allowed to reopen their dining rooms, but communication about rules and expectations is still a challenge.

Just 16 per cent of full-service restaurants turning a profit, but industry expects an improvement

Port City Royal in Saint John looks a little different in COVID-19 times. Tables are farther apart, and servers wear masks. (Discover Saint John)

Servers wearing masks, Plexiglas between tables, and a resurgence in plastic straw popularity.  Post-COVID-19 dining is different.

But in New Brunswick, the previously taken-for-granted experience can also vary from one establishment to another.

Some ask kitchen staff to wear masks, others don't. Some have Plexiglas, some don't. Some ask customers to sanitize their hands before entering the building, others leave it up to the individual. 

Restaurant owners say they're hitting their stride a month after they were allowed to reopen their dining rooms, but communication about rules and expectations is still a challenge.

"The poor health inspector, like 'here's some rules and regulations but at the same time nothing's set in stone, so good luck, sir,'" joked Jakob Lutes, chef and owner of Saint John's Port City Royal.

Jakob Lutes (left) is the owner and chef at Port City Royal. (uptownsj.com)

As part of the COVID-19 recovery plan in the province, New Brunswick announced restaurants can start serving customers in dine-in settings again. But when it comes to the guidelines, intentionally broad was the way to go, according to Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province's chief medical officer of health.

WorkSafeNB issued a guide that provides general protocols all workplaces must follow. A few things are non-negotiable: physical distancing, increased cleaning, hand hygiene and masks when physical distancing is not possible.

The province also asked that each business create an operational plan, which can be subject to surprise inspector scrutiny at any time. 

This inevitably meant restaurants interpret these guidelines differently. Lutes, for example, said all his staff are always wearing masks. 

He said even though it was not necessary, he also built a divider between the kitchen and the dining area, mostly to comfort the customers.

"Everybody has a different outlook on their own personal experience with COVID-19, some are scared to death still, and some are absolutely not," he said. "So just trying to sell, in our case, food to as many people within those groups as possible."

Lutes said he's seen more people feel comfortable going out to eat at his restaurant, which is good news as he may be able to turn a profit for the first time in months.

We adjusted one way with closing the dine-in, and then we had to adjust the other way.- Clément Dugas, cafe owner.

Other places, like Moncton's Clementine Cafe, does not require their staff to wear masks unless they're interacting closely with a customer.

"I've never felt that customers are offended by that or feel in any way insecure about the staff not wearing masks behind the counter," said owner Clément Dugas.

Dugas said he had one surprise inspection after someone called in a complaint about too many people being in his dining area at once.

He said it was on one of the first weekends after the province eased restrictions. The inspector from WorkSafeNB and a provincial peace officer reviewed his plan and thought it was appropriate, he said. They left him with a warning to keep better control of occupancy in his cafe.

"We adjusted one way with closing the dine-in, and then we had to adjust the other way. So it was hard to control capacity and things like that, so there was a lot of adjusting going on."

Luc Erjavec, the Atlantic vice-president of Restaurants Canada, said according to a national survey, 62 per cent of restaurants said that they are operating at a loss, 22 per cent said they were breaking even and about 16 per cent were profitable.

Contact confusion

The province has been continuously amending the emergency declaration. On June 19, it added a clause that made it a requirement for all businesses with sit-down services to take down the name and contact information of every customer. 

This did not reach many restaurants.

"We started that yesterday," Lutes said on Thursday. 

"The details of the information was kind of lost in translation."

Luc Erjavec, Atlantic vice president of Restaurants Canada, says his organization did not hear about a change in the emergency declaration until a few weeks after it was made. (CBC)

Erjavec said he didn't know about this requirement until the first weekend in July.

"It's something we're beginning to communicate with our members," he said. "I didn't hear anything directly from the province.

"I don't know if we missed it or they missed it," he said. 

He said restaurants were already keeping a name and number for one member of a party, the person who makes the reservation. But this is "a step up a level."

He said there are some patrons who don't want to give their names and numbers, but "I think in most cases people are understanding."

"We're going to try to protect the information as best we can. We have to keep it for 14 days. And at that point it will either be destroyed or deleted."

A spokesperson with the Public Safety said the change was made on June 19, but mentioned in a news release on June 26.

In a scrum Wednesday Premier Blaine Higgs said if restaurant owners visited the government of New Brunswick website and didn't find this information, then something might be wrong. 

"If they're saying 'well it's not available', ok, then there may have been a problem, but if it's available and they haven't read it, you know, at some point everyone has to take their own responsibility to know what's new," Higgs said.

Lutes said he doesn't check the emergency declaration every day, or every week. He said he counts on emails from industry organizations.

"How does this info trickle down? Especially as a business owner who, at the very best of times... has very limited time to make sure everything is checked off."

Who does inspections?

All 14,000 registered employers with WorkSafeNB received the guideline, said Department of Public Safety spokesperson Coreen Enos. These include restaurants, salons, and offices.

She said the Department of Public Safety's health protection services and WorkSafeNB have collaborated to respond to inspections and complaints. She said public safety is responsible for food premises, takeouts, food trucks, day cares and "other public facing enterprises."

She said WorkSafeNB handles inspections of businesses, such as manufacturing facilities and sawmills.

She said frequency of restaurant inspections depends on past inspection history, population served, type of foods served and number of meals served daily. She said inspections can be on a set schedule or random, and can also be triggered by a public complaint.

"An example of something inadequate would be employees in a kitchen not wearing masks and not properly social distancing (6 feet / 2M) from each other," she wrote in an email.

Premier Blaine Higgs said restaurants have the responsibility to always check if COVID-19 guidance has been updated. (CBC)

 She said if if an inspector finds that a business is breaking the rules, they would be given a warning and 24-48 hours to correct the issues "depending on the nature of the non-compliance in the business or operation."

"If the business/operation does not comply with the order issued they can be subsequently issued a fine."

The department was asked for, but did not share, any figures of COVID-19-related fines, warnings, or infraction findings since dining–in was allowed. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hadeel Ibrahim is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick based in Saint John. She's been previously awarded for a series on refugee mental health and for her work at a student newspaper, where she served as Editor-in-Chief. She reports in English and Arabic. Email: hadeel.ibrahim@cbc.ca. Twitter: @HadeelBIbrahim

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