Nova Scotia

As Halifax restaurants adjust to new COVID-19 rules, some go step further

While some restaurant and bar owners in the Halifax area say new restrictions are tough but necessary to slow COVID-19 cases, The Orient has decided to go a step further by closing its dining room for two weeks.

'This was somewhat inevitable and honestly it feels pretty common sense'

Ivan Chan, owner and chef at The Orient on the Bedford Highway, will close the dining area for two weeks as COVID-19 cases and exposure notices mount. (CBC)

While some restaurant and bar owners in the Halifax area say new restrictions are tough but necessary to slow COVID-19 cases, one business is going a step further.

Starting Monday, people won't be allowed to sit at a table with more than five people, and contact tracing information is now mandatory for patrons. 

But Ivan Chan, owner and chef at The Orient on the Bedford Highway, has decided to close his restaurant's doors for two weeks. 

He said the situation around the city is too unpredictable with the dozens of possible exposure notices that have been recently announced.

"We want to make sure that the staff and our patrons are safe and do the best we can," Chan said Saturday. "I think that is something that is more valuable than the business at this point."

He said he hopes "we will have a Christmas season" and "that's why we want to take the initiative to hopefully set an example for everyone else."

Chan said he wants to be especially careful since his parents live with him and his family, but the decision to close was still "quite difficult." 

When the two weeks are up, Chan said he'll look at the case numbers and exposure notices to decide what to do next.

The Orient will continue curbside takeout. Chan hopes people will still come to get their food through the no-contact pickup system.

Chan's restaurant is not the only business taking matters into their own hands.

About 10 restaurants in the Halifax area have either closed entirely or are only offering takeout and delivery. People are advised to check with restaurants before visiting.

But some owners are relieved the province hasn't forced the service industry to close down again.

Lara Cusson, who owns Café Lara on Agricola Street, said the changes will definitely affect her business but might help keep the situation from worsening.

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Cusson said Premier Stephen McNeil's comments ahead of Friday's announcement on new restrictions caused some panic.

On Tuesday, McNeil said he wouldn't think twice about shutting down sections of the economy, which Cusson said was "really unfair."

She said it led employees to worry and created fear in patrons. She said she didn't know how much inventory to purchase.

 "We don't have transparency from leadership at this time," Cusson said.

She also said that the province should not be pointing fingers at the 18-35 age group as the root of recent issues.

McNeil said on Friday that younger people are going out when they feel sick, and in large groups without distancing.

But COVID-19 isn't being created in small businesses, Cusson said, but is introduced from people coming in after travelling outside the Atlantic bubble. 

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, has repeatedly said travel is how the rash of cases began, which Cusson said falls to the province.

She said Nova Scotia should be using better screening measures like tests for everyone coming into the province, and better monitoring for those who are supposed to be self-isolating.

One of the new regulations has asymptomatic bar staff on the Halifax peninsula undergoing voluntary testing over seven days, starting early next week.

Brian Titus, the owner of Garrison Brewing, said he is happy to see both the tests for staff and requiring that people leave their information for contact tracing, which they and many others had already been doing.

Brian Titus, owner of Garrison Brewing, speaks with CBC in the Oxford Taproom's outdoor patio on Nov. 20. (CBC)

There's no doubt that cutting the numbers of people at a table to five will have an impact on their bottom line, Titus said. Garrison Brewing already had a number of small groups that wanted to book holiday gatherings, and that will have to change, Titus said.

But after a summer of enjoying looser restrictions, Titus said now is the time to cut back and curb the virus spread so the industry can remain open.

"This was somewhat inevitable and, honestly, it feels pretty common sense," he said.

The group representing the Nova Scotia service industry knows that the next few weeks will be hard.

Gordon Stewart, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia, told CBC's Mainstreet on Friday that the restrictions are manageable but "will definitely hurt."

Businesses will not only have to deal with limited group sizes over the holidays, Stewart said, but also a general nervousness about dining out at all.

Gordon Stewart of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia said public confidence in dining out is already going down. (CBC)

Stewart said consumer confidence in going out to restaurants had grown to 55-57 per cent, but that's back down below 50 per cent now.

"I expect we'll see an enormous amount of cancellations this weekend, an enormous amount of cancellations for organized parties," Stewart said.

He noted that during a recent meeting with Strang, industry members suggested a different way of tackling virus spread without cutting table numbers down.

Since the 18-35 age bracket has been singled out as travelling around the most, Stewart said they offered to have bars close at midnight rather than 1 a.m. and keep the same table numbers, but that did not happen.

The new gathering limits will apply to most of the Halifax Regional Municipality, extending from Peggys Cove to Porters Lake. The part of the municipality east of Porters Lake to Ecum Secum will be exempt since cases are not appearing there.

The limits also include the Enfield and Mount Uniacke areas to the north of Halifax, but they do not apply in Elmsdale and communities north of there.

The new rules are in place until Dec.21.

With files from Colleen Jones, Taryn Grant and CBC's Mainstreet