Ottawa

What restaurants, their employees and customers should know about the new risks under Stage 3

Ottawa and much of Ontario are navigating a new world this weekend, one that offers more freedom but also poses risks that shouldn't be shrugged off, say experts in both labour law and infectious disease prevention.

Labour lawyer, infectious disease specialist offer advice as indoor dining resumes

A server takes orders from customers surrounded by protective dividers at a seafood restaurant in Los Angeles in June. Dine-in service was allowed to resume in Ottawa on Friday. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

Ottawa and much of Ontario are navigating a new world this weekend, one that offers more freedom but also poses risks that shouldn't be shrugged off, say experts in both labour law and infectious disease prevention.

Eastern Ontario entered Stage 3 on Friday, which means movie theatres and yoga studios can reopen, along with karaoke bars, pubs and dine-in restaurants.

Those particular venues are going to be really troublesome. All you need is one person.- Dr. Gerald Evans, Queens University

"Restaurants and bars right now have been very prominently featured as places where transmission of this virus occurs more readily than it does in an outdoor environment ... or even say a hospital," said Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of the division of infectious diseases at Queen's University and medical director of infection prevention and control at Kingston Health Sciences Centre.

"Those particular venues are going to be really troublesome. All you need is one person."

Customers inside restaurants and bars are required to wear face masks unless they're in the midst of eating or drinking. Servers are also required to wear masks inside. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

The risk of transmission indoors comes from two main culprits, he said: big and small droplets. Both exit our bodies when we do things like talk, cough and sneeze, and usually drop to surfaces or the ground within two metres of us. 

The big droplets get the most attention, and for good reason. They are responsible for about 95 per cent of COVID-19 infections, according to Evans.

But increasingly, there are concerns about the virus travelling in smaller particles, or aerosols. These droplets are tiny and can circulate around a room. They can also hang in the air for a while.

"The longer you're in that indoor space, the more likely you are to potentially inhale enough of them to actually result in transmission," Evans said.

Outside, he said, the small droplets are largely harmless because they're diluted by the atmosphere. Inside, they're more worrisome. 

Follow the rules closely, lawyer recommends

It's that heightened risk posed by Stage 3 that has phones at Nelligan Law ringing non-stop.

The Ottawa law firm set up a free helpline in March to offer advice to workers and employers about how to reduce liability, protect their rights and understand protections under the Occupational Health and Safety Act during the pandemic. 

"One question that's been constant throughout, whether it was March or July, has been: 'What if I don't feel safe going into work?'" said lawyer Malini Vijaykumar.

If a restaurant or bar server doesn't feel safe, Vijaykumar recommends they raise their concerns with their employer, who is obligated to investigate. If conditions don't change, employees can refuse to work in an unsafe workplace and complain to the Ministry of Labour.

Employers who don't follow public health guidelines on reopening safely during the COVID-19 pandemic can face a host of sanctions, she said.

If they're found to be operating an unsafe work environment, employers can face fines and even jail time in rare cases. Some regulated businesses including restaurants and nail salons can be shut down and fined if Ottawa Public Health (OPH) receives and investigates complaints, anonymous or otherwise.

A waiter in protective gear serves customers at a restaurant in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on July 6, 2020. (Andre Penner/AP)

For those reasons, Vijaykumar recommends employers do everything they can to make sure they're abiding by health recommendations issued by OPH and the province.

"The more things an employer can point to as concrete measures for ensuring a safe workplace, the more they are mitigating that risk," she said.

Be selective, doctor advises

Evans suggests residents, too, stay on top of public health directives so they can decide which businesses deserve their dollars.

Among its recommendations, OPH says restaurants should consider a reservations-only model, keep tables two metres apart, limit seating at each table to six, display public health information so customers can screen themselves before entering, and consider installing Plexiglas shields where physical distancing is impossible.

OPH also advises restaurants not to seat people in areas where there's a lot of foot traffic, provide single-use condiments and keep music low to discourage leaning in and loud talking, which produces more droplets.

"Look for a restaurant that's large [and] has a capacity to keep people well distanced," Evans recommends. "If it's in a large space with few people, you might be able to get away with it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Glowacki is a reporter based in Ottawa. Previously, she worked as a reporter in Winnipeg and as an associate producer for CBC's Metro Morning in Toronto. Find her on Twitter @glowackiCBC and reach her by email at laura.glowacki@cbc.ca.

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