‘Hopefully this is the last time’: Ontario businesses reopen with cautious optimism

By Noushin Ziafati and Holly McKenzie-Sutter

TORONTO – Ontario restaurants, gyms and theatres welcomed patrons back as restrictions from the latest pandemic shutdown eased on Monday, with customers happy to return and businesses anxious but hopeful about recouping losses.

The reopening marked the first step in Ontario’s plan to gradually roll back public health measures imposed in early January amid soaring cases of the highly infectious Omicron variant.

Restaurant dining rooms, gyms and cinemas were allowed to resume operations at half capacity, with patrons required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Larger venues, such as sporting arenas and concert halls, could also open with no more than 500 people, with smaller venues limited to half capacity.

Some surgeries that were paused to preserve health system capacity were also allowed to restart as of Monday, while social gathering sizes increased to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors – up from five indoors and 10 outdoors.

In downtown Toronto, some restaurants’ dining areas were busy, while others saw patrons slowly trickle in and out. Residents also rolled into gyms in short intervals, presenting their vaccine passports and IDs while entering.

Kyle Jageshar, who was making his way to a gym, said he had been counting down the days to Monday. Working out in his condo or going on walks during the recent set of restrictions wasn’t the same, he added.

“Going to the gym every day is something that I’m used to, it’s part of my routine and it’s something that makes me feel better about myself, so I’m definitely excited to be back,” he said.

Elsewhere, Mark Lovewell enjoyed a coffee at a restaurant before heading to his office.

“It’s a wonderful sense of relief to be able to go back to something approximating normal,” he said.

Lovewell said he’s had three doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and recently recovered from the Omicron variant, which all made him feel safe dining indoors.

Ryan Mallough of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said business owners that “bore the brunt” of the latest closures were feeling hopeful about the reopening but realistic about the fact that customers may not be rushing to dine in a restaurant or work out at a gym after the latest surge in COVID-19 cases.

“Hopefully this is the last time we have to go through reopening,” Mallough, senior director for the CFIB in Ontario, said in an interview.

Mallough said the 50 per cent capacity limit will be a struggle for some businesses, especially as many expect lower traffic in the early weeks, but noted that “anything is better than being fully closed.”

Changes to the province’s COVID-19 testing policy are also causing some strain on the workforce, Mallough noted.

Gold-standard PCR tests were restricted during the Omicron wave due to the sheer number of cases. Residents with symptoms are mostly advised to isolate and assume they have COVID-19 rather than get a test because resources are being saved for those considered most at-risk. That has led to staff shortages, Mallough said. He said businesses hope the government will make rapid tests more available once supply allows so workers can rule out an infection sooner.

Arif Ahmed, a general manager at Hothouse, said most of the staff at his restaurant were laid off during the latest closure and managers were left tending to takeout and delivery orders. The past few weeks brought in a tiny fraction – less than 10 per cent – of the revenue the restaurant normally makes, he said.

“When you have a place as big as ours, it’s very difficult to stay in business with only takeout and delivery,” Ahmed said.

James Rilett with Restaurants Canada said there was “excitement and trepidation” in the sector over the latest reopening, adding that restaurants had been booking reservations close to their capacity limits.

“We’ve been through this so many times before that people are still a little anxious, but for now they’re taking it as a positive thing,” he said.

Despite optimism that Ontario’s latest period of targeted closures would be the last, Rilett said restaurants will need government support that outlasts the period of restrictions.

“It’s going to be a while before we’re back to another profitable status,” he said. “It only make sense that (governments) give us as much help as they possibly can.”

Opposition politicians called for expanded business supports on Monday.

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said the government should take more proactive steps – like making third vaccine doses required for vaccine certificates – to avoid future shutdowns.

“You have to take the meaningful steps … that will actually make sure that we can reopen safely and then stay open,” he said.

Premier Doug Ford said the easing of measures on Monday marked “the first step in returning to normal.”

“All Ontarians are united in their desire to put this pandemic behind us and return to the life we knew before COVID-19,” he wrote in a statement.

Ontario reported 2,983 people in hospital with COVID-19 and 583 people in ICU on Monday. That was down from 3,019 hospitalizations and 587 in intensive care the previous day, although not all hospitals report data from the weekends.

The province also reported 31 more COVID-19 deaths.