Cross Country Checkup

As bars reopen, some are trying to return to their pre-COVID-19 lives, says psychologist

Bars and restaurants across the country have reopened their doors after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered them back in March. But even with physical distancing measures and mandatory mask laws in certain regions, some question whether it's safe to reopen the establishments.

'You try not to fully acknowledge it by behaving as if ... things are not that bad,' says Dr. Saunia Ahmad

A restaurant patio on Montreal's Mount Royal Ave. The province of Quebec allowed bars and restaurants to reopen last month, but has recently seen a surge in COVID-19 cases linked to the establishments. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

At her pub in downtown Montreal, Judy Kennedy says that many of the patrons who come in for a pint or a bite to eat, despite COVID-19-related restrictions, are simply looking for a taste of the life before the virus.

"The people that are coming out to restaurants, aren't coming out … because they don't care," about the coronavirus threat, the bartender at McLean's Pub told Cross Country Checkup.

"They're coming out because they want the experience, and they want [there] to be some sort of normalcy."

Bars and restaurants across the country have reopened their doors after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered them back in March. 

In several provinces, including B.C., Alberta and Quebec, customers have been able to dine inside at establishments since last month, while Ontario allowed dining on patios only. On Friday, dining rooms in some parts of Ontario were also given the green light to open — the same day the Ontario Medical Association released a statement urging the provincial government to rethink its plan for dining indoors.

Kennedy, a bartender at McLean's Pub in Montreal, now wears a mask and goggles while serving. (Submitted by Judy Kennedy)

But even with physical distancing measures and mandatory mask laws in certain regions, some question whether it's yet safe to reopen the establishments.

In Quebec, thousands lined up outside COVID-19 testing sites this week. The provincial government asked anyone who visited a bar after July 1st to get tested for the illness. Since reopening bars and restaurants in Montreal, there has been a rise in COVID-19 cases linked to a handful of establishments in the city.

Denial coping

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Saunia Ahmad, it's not all that surprising that some would be clamouring to get out of the house and back to the pub with friends.

"The reality is very difficult to come to terms with, the reality being that things are not the way they used to be. We've lost the life that we used to live," she said in a phone interview. "You try not to fully acknowledge it by behaving as if, and thinking and approaching it as if, things are not that bad, and they haven't changed, really."

Ahmad calls it denial coping and says that mixed messaging from leaders and governments is partly to blame for patrons flouting safety guidelines.

"If the government has allowed restaurants to open, of course, people think it's OK because the government had taken over control and closed a lot of establishments and businesses down," said Ahmad.

"There's a range of opinions and it's causing a lot of confusion, and also maybe a lot of frustration, especially for those people who really are practicing a lot more caution."

Clinical psychologist Saunia Ahmad examines the refusal by some to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite public health advice. 5:50

As more restaurants and bars come back to life, social pressure to meet loved ones and friends for a drink could also mean more people in dining rooms, and Ahmad says that there could be a group think mentality among Canadians when it comes to the economy reopening.

"People's caution and guards are down now, and they are seeing their friends and other people around going out. So they think, 'Why not? If others are doing it, we do it too,'" she said.

"You do as the people in your network do."

'You have to be repetitive'

Lisa Czech, a bartender at Casa Del Popolo in Montreal, says that while most pubgoers have been respectful, she did have to turn away one guest who refused to offer their information on a registry intended for contact tracing. 

That restaurant is collecting customers' information in the event of an outbreak or confirmed case at the establishment.

Lisa Czech works at Casa Del Popolo in Montreal and says that most patrons have been respectful of pandemic-related guidelines, including the use of hand sanitizer. (Submitted by Lisa Czech)

"One person refused to sign our registry. They just absolutely refused and so I had to refuse them service," she explained. 

"But I feel that kind of that's not the sort of person that I want in the bar — somebody who is not going to respect other people."

Though Judy Kennedy agrees that most visitors take safety guidelines seriously, there are times when she has to remind them of her dining room's rules — avoid moving between tables, practice physical distancing and use hand sanitizer.

"You have to be repetitive, then people get it very quickly. Even the drunk people," she said.


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Kirthana Sasitharan and Steve Howard.

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