Restaurants throughout the city close indoor dining until New Year’s Eve and then, as Omicron cases rise

Are you planning to hit a restaurant or bar to kick 2021 to the brim?

Despite the fact that you are allowed to operate with 50 percent capacity, your favorite place may not be to welcome guests this holiday season – for your and their safety.

Independent restaurants and bars in Toronto are increasingly deciding to close their doors or offer takeaway only before New Year’s Eve, when COVID-19 cases skyrocket to record numbers.

Restaurant owners say closing indoor dining is the right thing to do despite being on their way into what is traditionally a lucrative time for their industry.

“It was for the safety of our staff, ourselves, our customers,” said Harsh Chawla, who along with business partner Derek Valleau decided to close indoor dining on their St. Clair Ave. restaurant, Pukka, on December 20 until the new year.

“And we have a decent takeaway business, so we wanted to protect that.”

Keeping it open for indoor dining guests was not worth the money either.

With so few customers, “it costs more sometimes to open the business instead of closing down,” Chawla said.

Chawla and Valleau began noticing that the personal business declined in early December when Omicron made inroads in Canada. The trend accelerated only after indoor restrictions were reintroduced on Dec. 19 to 50 percent from full capacity, Chawla said.

James Rilett of Restaurants Canada said many restaurateurs make the same decision for a variety of reasons: safety, staffing issues, financial considerations, and the mental health burden.

This will be the second holiday season in a row where restaurants are not getting the financial boost they normally rely on to get through the slower winter months, Rilett said.

He said restaurants might have been able to save the crucial holiday season by planning ahead instead of having to turn on a dime, but that lack of government guidance made it nearly impossible.

Many restaurant and bar owners say that everything changed for them within a few weeks.

At Laura Carr’s Chez Nous Wine Bar on Queen St. East started the first week of December strong. Orders for the holidays poured in, Carr said.

But after just one week, she noticed that indoor traffic was declining, the number of cancellations was increasing, and she started hearing about outbursts at other restaurants.

She lowered the capacity of her bar before the government enforced new limits, but still did not feel safe.

“The longer I stay open, the more vulnerable we are,” she said. “I am vulnerable by the nature of my work.”

To make matters worse, some of those who kept coming to eat did not seem to take COVID-19 seriously, Carr said, and were even violent towards her and her staff.

She struggled with the decision, but eventually decided to close her doors and return to being a bottle store. Carr hopes it will only be a few weeks, but is mentally preparing for longer.

It’s not restaurateur Jen Agg’s first time having to close indoor dining, but especially this time has been really difficult, she said.

After feeling like her restaurants were back in business, “that kind of came out of nowhere,” said Agg, who closed most of her restaurants – including the popular Bar Vendetta – to indoor diners on Dec. 18.

“There was just a sense of unrest and fear that went through the staff about working a week before they were going to see the family,” she said.

Although she originally planned to reopen for New Year’s Eve, it’s off the table now as well. Agg said she feels “hindered” by the lack of data and information that could help her make the safest decision.

“I do not think we should make that choice,” she said.

Businesses have access to increased subsidies, Agg noted, but she’s more concerned about her staff – if she fires them, the funds they receive from Employment Insurance or the federal COVID-19 benefit will not be close enough to live in. Toronto.

At the Filipino restaurant Lamesa on St. Clair Ave. West saw owner Lester Sabilano also see the number of cases increase dramatically in early December. On December 21, he decided to turn to takeaway for the time being to help keep his community safe.

“I just feel like small businesses are somehow being forced to make that decision on their own,” he said.

“I do not feel supported as the owner of a small business.”

Some business owners decided to close completely for holidays, such as College St.’s Free Times Cafe.

Owner Judy Perly said after a successful take-away Christmas dinner that she and her staff were not only tired but worried about Omicron’s rapid spread. Indoor dining was already slow, so she decided to close the restaurant until January, when she plans to “regroup.”

She believes the province moved restaurants back to 100 percent capacity too quickly and that it scared many guests away.

“It was like a losing battle,” said Perly, who predicts yet another rise in cases caused by New Year’s Eve parties.

Chawla said restaurant owners had been excited to go into the holiday and it was devastating to see things change so quickly.

He hopes this is the last time he is forced to make this decision.

“It feels like a déjà vu,” he said.

He feels lucky that his restaurant has a robust takeaway and delivery side. But he is frustrated that business owners like himself have had to take matters into their own hands.

“Everyone makes their own decisions,” he said.

“We need a clear directive.”

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