‘Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?’: Restaurant owners fear the future, as province keeps patios shut amid falling case counts
|Toronto Star 15 May 2021 at 07:56|
That guy who doesn’t care that it’s 15 degrees outside or that it’s April. He wants to sit on a patio and turn his face to the sun. The crowd that shows up in winter jackets. The couple whose only hobby is finding the best spots for al fresco dining.
“It signals the beginning of summer — it’s such a key part of it,” says sommelier Lauren Hall, general manager of Lapinou bistro on King Street West.
“People will sit out in April at 15 degrees but won’t sit out on a patio in October or September at 20 degrees. There’s something that just says: ‘OK, we made it through the winter. It’s summertime.’”
COVID has been Canada’s longest, darkest winter. Residents bubbled, huddled and waited, believing May would bring reliable sunshine and they could once again become patio animals. They would take back their six feet, just enough room for four chairs and a table with an umbrella, tip big, and help their favourite local bar get back on its feet — a patio stimulus package.
On a patio, they could eat, drink, talk and laugh their way into an economic recovery, one pint, one burger at a time — the beginning of the end of the pandemic, a beginning that has again been delayed.
“I think patios are a central part of any metropolis. They bring the city to life,” says Sharat Ramamani, 26, a tech manager who lives in Cabbagetown and who, in a normal summer, spends one to two nights a week al fresco with friends.
“I think that’s a reason why you have so many folks out there at least asking for patios to be open again,” says Ramamani.
Whether or not patios should be open now is a topic of some debate among experts.
“If it’s outdoors, I’m all for it,” says infections diseases physician Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a member of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine task force. “Outdoor transmission is extremely low-risk.”
University of Toronto epidemiologist Dr. Colin Furness meanwhile, thinks patios should remain closed until Canada Day.
He points out that people sit less than six feet apart on patios, often leave their masks off even when they’re not eating or drinking and may speak louder the more they drink, potentially expelling more infectious particles, putting not only each other, but also restaurant servers, at risk.
Furness also does not like the idea of people crowding public transit to get to patios.
“I don’t want to be a killjoy, but I don’t want to see that happening right now. It’s totally the wrong time,” he says.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, stung by accusations that a tentative reopening in March, which included reopening patios, helped fuel a third wave of COVID-19 that proved far worse than the first two, said Thursday that even though health indicators are improving, and as much as he knows everyone wants to get out, no one wants to risk a fourth wave.
In Toronto, the situation appears to be improving rapidly by virtually every metric.
The number of patients in Toronto hospitals is still high, especially the number in intensive care or on ventilators, but even those numbers are now in decline from the peak of the third wave.
The number of COVID-19 tests coming back positive also remains high — above 20 per cent in one Toronto neighbourhood, based on data from the week ending May 8. But that rate is falling too — there were six such hot spots a week earlier.
Overall, test positivity is at 10.5 per cent, down from 12 per cent a week previously.
The city’s daily case average is down 40 per cent from its peak during the third wave on April 20. If that rate of decline continues, the city could be reporting fewer than 300 cases a day by June.
Some restaurant owners are losing hope — or have decided not to hope.
After being allowed to open and forced to close their patio more than once during the pandemic, the husband-and-wife duo behind Campo restaurant in Toronto’s west end have learned not to spend too much time thinking about what regulations may come next.
“I think we can’t plan too far in the future, otherwise we get disappointed or lose money,” said Campo co-owner Angela Ventura Villalta.
She and her husband Carlos Ventura spent about $10,000 on patio equipment last year, including heaters, planters and furniture, in order to take advantage of the city’s CaféTO program, which loosened the rules around patios, allowing them in more locations, including laneways and curb lanes.
“It was a big help,” said Ventura, who is looking forward to being able to reopen Campo’s 25-person curb-lane patio, which he said was popular with local residents last year.
The city has already been around to install some of the barriers required to create a patio space in front of the restaurant.
The city began the installation of CaféTO locations on May 8, to be ready as soon as provincial health orders allow for outdoor dining. Many restaurateurs had been hoping Ford would give them the green light to open in time for the May long weekend.
To date, the city has received more than 1,200 applications for CaféTO curb lane or sidewalk locations, and more than 1,000 have been approved or verified, according to the city.
Restaurateur Billy Dertilis, owner of the Red Rocket Café and chairman of the Danforth Mosaic BIA, says he is seeing a lot of hopelessness in the industry.
“As things go on, people have less and less resources and less and less energy or goodwill to throw toward the problem, to throw toward their businesses and keep them going,” says Dertilis.
“A storekeeper a year ago may have had $40,000 in the bank, and they said, ‘OK, we can ride this through.’ Six months later, that becomes $15,000 and six months after that, they’re now negative $10,000.
“And so how much more do they need to do and where is the light at the end of the tunnel?”
Having lived in Montreal, New York City, San Francisco and Mexico City, Dertilis has seen patios in action around the globe, and used to be baffled by the restrictions in Toronto.
The growth in the number of patios in the city under CaféTO has helped animate the streets, adding bustle and life to neighbourhoods.
“It shows we can have nice things here in Canada or in Toronto as well, not just in Europe,” says Dertilis.
Psychologist Saunia Ahmad, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, says being able to gather with friends on a patio has numerous psychological benefits.
Being outside in sunshine is a mood booster. So is sharing food with others.
“Humans are social animals. We are biologically wired to want to connect, and require connection with other humans,” says Ahmad.
“Being engaged with people makes us feel more connected, more supported, less alone.”
Connecting online doesn’t confer the same benefits, says Ahmad. And while one-on-one interactions are important, as are positive interactions with smaller groups, being part of a crowd fulfils another important need.
“When you’re in a larger gathering, you feel a sense of community. There is definitely a positive impact on someone’s mood and their sense of optimism and sense of hope if they are around a larger gathering of people where people are feeling positive.”
Allowing restaurants to open patios for the May long weekend would provide an outlet for people who want to celebrate with others in their households, says James Rilett, vice-president of central Canada for Restaurants Canada.
“The May long weekend is a milestone. People will want to get out and if they’re not given a safe outlet, then we’re afraid that people are going to have their own private gatherings anyway,” says Rilett, whose organization represents 38,000 restaurants in Canada.
Rilett says restaurant patios have been allowed to open for 12 days since November, and the brief open-and-shut period in March caused chaos.
“There is a large number of people in the industry that think: The next time I open I want to open for good.”