Epidemiologist warns of crowding risk as patrons pack Ottawa's patios

As the weather warmed up over the weekend, Ottawa restaurants praised the city for allowing patios to open early, but one infectious disease expert wants people to wait before dining outdoors.

Now not the time to go to restaurants, bars, Dr. Gerald Evans says

People soak in the unseasonably warm weather on a patio in Ottawa's ByWard Market on Saturday. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson has announced patios can open earlier than usual this year. (Olivier Plante/Radio-Canada)

As the weather warmed up over the weekend, Ottawa restaurants praised the city for allowing patios to open early, but one infectious disease expert wants people to wait a little longer before dining outdoors.

With Ottawa's move into the red zone Friday, and provincial limits on the number of people allowed to dine indoors at a restaurant or bar, Mayor Jim Watson asked staff to fast-track the opening of the city's patio season.

Any business that "had a patio last summer or this winter" was allowed to re-open it under the same rules that were established to help businesses at the height of the pandemic.

Many businesses welcomed the change and there was no shortage of people soaking in the warmth and sunlight on patios this weekend.

"Being in the red zone, it is surprising because you would think that people would be a little bit less aggressive," said Ryan Quinnell, general manager at The Grand in the Byward Market.

But he said he was glad to welcome more guests and felt everyone was staying safe.

"I'd rather be serving people here than serving people in my house," he said. 

"We have the right contact tracing. We have all the hand sanitizer everywhere. We wear masks, we wear goggles when we're within two meters of somebody without a mask."

Slow down, epidemiologist says

Patio-goers, like Ruth Tynan, seemed to feel safe too.

"We all wear masks up until we got to the seat and then we're all careful all the time. So I think we trust each other and wanted to spend the day together and have a nice meal on the patio."

She said she feels safer on a patio than inside, and being able to socialize was helping her get over her COVID fatigue. 

Many were out this weekend, the first of spring, in the Byward Market. (Olivier Plante/Radio-Canada)

Yet, the number of COVID-19 cases in the city is continuing to increase, as are the number of cases involving variants of concern.

Ottawa Public Health reported 86 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday and variants of concern now make up 50 per cent of cases across the province.

"I don't think it's the time now to go into restaurants and bars. Although patios are safer, I would certainly still be very cautious for the next few weeks," said Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist with Queen's University.

"The variants are rising and vaccine roll-out, unfortunately, has been a little bit slower than we'd like. I think people just need to give it a few more weeks."

He said the provincial and municipal rules around restaurants are giving people the sense they are safe.

"The problem with allowing these changes to happen is there's an implicit signal to people that now it's OK to do it."

Instead, Evans encourages people to get takeout from local restaurants, but that if they do go to dine-in at a restaurant or sit on a patio, they know who they're sharing that table with.


Natalia is a multi-platform journalist in Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador.

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