Experts say this is a necessary sacrifice to fight the pandemic
Walking in through the glass door off Beaubien Street, Café l’Étincelle offers a warm respite from the cold November air. Edison bulbs hanging from industrial light fixtures, colourful orange walls, and the smell of freshly brewed pumpkin-spice lattes billowing from behind the counter are what draws in the hip local Rosepatrian crowd.
Rémy Deloume opened the cafe in 2016 with his father and brother. They wanted to create a welcoming space where people could come to work, socialize and feel at home.
But the tables that once were filled with self-employed workers and university students now instead lay host to rows of bags of Nicaraguan blends and ceramic tumbler take-out cups.
On Oct.1, provincial measures forced Deloume to shut his dining area for the second time in six months. The restrictions were further extended on Nov. 13, now going until at least Jan. 11. These rules mean the only way he can create revenue is by selling take-out coffees and merchandise.
“We haven’t had a single case of Covid since we reopened,” said Deloume, adding he felt confident he could reopen his booths and still offer a safe environment for his customers.
Yet most experts are not in agreement. Dr. Colin Furness, an epidemiologist and infection control specialist and professor at the University of Toronto, said that restaurants are “a perfect storm” for the spread of COVID-19. He said that a combination of environmental, scientific and social factors make restaurants particularly dangerous.
“What [COVID-19] really likes is spreading by fine droplets in situations where people are together, sharing air, with poor ventilation and no masks,” said Furness. These factors make restaurants a perfect environment for the virus, as they are often cramped, poorly ventilated places where people generally spend long hours socializing.
Furness said there was a common misconception that closures are in place to protect patrons, when in fact they are there more so to protect staff.
“Their exposure time to the aerosols in the air is much higher,” said Furness, adding that staff are openly interacting with hundreds of unmasked customers every day.
Given the measures that were put in place over the summer to protect customers, like plexiglass dividers and obligatory mask-wearing when moving around, patrons are at a lower risk of contracting the virus in a restaurant or bar than the workers.
The problem arises when a staff member gets sick.
“The virus moves from the waiter to other waiters to family members,” said Furness, demonstrating how outbreaks can stem from restaurants.
Hospitality workers are generally younger, meaning contagion often goes undetected as many cases are asymptomatic. The spread is also further compounded when considering the active social lives of young restaurant workers.
But many restaurant owners, including Deloume, feel the government is not being transparent enough in sharing the data that links restaurants to the spread of COVID-19.
In October, a group of business owners in the industry co-authored an open letter demanding the government to share its data to justify its policy.
According to David Lefebvre, vice-president of Restaurants Canada and co-signatory of the letter, increased data sharing would be a benefit for all involved.
“It would give a better explanation, and people would probably buy in a little bit more,” he said, adding that business owners would feel more involved in the decision-making process.
But Furness said it is difficult to achieve this, as much of the data the industry is asking for still doesn’t exist.
“It’s very hard to find an epidemiological link to a restaurant event,” he said, as many cases go unreported and little formal research exists.
Regardless, Furness said the link was obvious when comparing the similar conditions between super-spreader events.
“It’s invisible, but it’s there, much like the force of gravity,” he said.
Because of these factors, government officials and experts say restaurants cannot reopen until the pandemic is under control, suggesting instead that these businesses stick to take-out, catering and alcohol sales.
“If there were a way for people to be in a restaurant, eating and drinking, and still be wearing masks, I would change my story, but there isn’t,” said Furness. He concluded by saying it was the government’s responsibility to better communicate these facts and help all business owners get through this period.
Yet, Deloume still feels this will not be enough. It has now been two months since the initial closures, and he said it would not have been possible to stay in business if it weren’t for the time his family has put in.
“We work one-hundred-hour weeks,” said Deloume.
He understands the reasons behind the closures and believes protecting lives is the number one priority, but still wishes the government would include stakeholders in its decision-making process.
“We want to feel like we’re all in the same boat, but not that our future depends on a government decision,” Deloume said.
In the meantime, Deloume said he would continue to respect public health orders, serving take-out coffee and food. He also hopes that everyone’s efforts pay off and that restaurants will be able to reopen soon. Deloume said he hopes to soon return to the motto of his café, Ralentir, S’ennuyer, Rêver, and fully reopen so his patrons will be able to once again slow down, disconnect and daydream.
Graphic by Taylor Reddam