Bartender Victoria Colombe fills a drink for customers while working at Door Fifty Five bar and restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic in the Port Credit neighbourhood of Mississauga, Ont., Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Restaurants are looking forward to reopening under Ontario’s new tiered system, but experts worry that without more stringent precautions, such as COVID-19 testing of staff, the reopening of all businesses, will cause more harm to the economy than good.

Restaurants have been hard hit throughout the pandemic. Indoor dining was shuttered for months during the first wave of the disease, and just as they had begun to reopen, the province closed them down again in four regions—Toronto, Ottawa, Peel Region and York Region.

Restaurants Canada estimates that by March 2021, about 50 per cent of independent restaurants will no longer be able to stay afloat. That estimation is 10 percentage points higher than the figure provided two weeks ago.

“This pandemic was never anticipated to go this long,” said James Rilett, VP of Central Canada for Restaurants Canada.

“Restaurants are simply running out of capital to continue to operate. Especially independent restaurants that don't really have much, you know they don't have the deep pockets behind them to lend them money and banks are no longer lending money for capital investments.”

Rilett says that Restaurant Canada is happy with the changes made to the shutdown plan and that he appreciates having a clear framework for when further restrictions are made.

Under the tier system, indoor dining will be permitted in four of the five categories, albeit with slight modifications.

Here are the rules:

Green/Prevent: Indoor dining is allowed, but tables must be at least two-meters apart. Buffets are still prohibited while dancing, singing and karaoke will be permitted. Face masks are required when not eating and drinking, and eye protection should be worn by staff when interacting with patrons not wearing face coverings. Staff should collect contact information from one person per group.

Yellow/Protect: All measures from previous levels still apply. Restaurants must close by midnight and stop serving alcohol by 11 p.m. There will be a seating limit of six people and staff should collect contact information for everyone at the table.

Orange/Restrict: All measures from previous levels still apply. There will be a 50-person indoor limit in restaurants, which will now close by 10 p.m. No alcohol will be sold after 9 p.m. All patrons should be screened and only four people will be seated at a table. Strip clubs will close completely.

Red/Control: All measures from previous levels still apply. There will be a 10-person capacity limit for restaurants and bars. Dancing and singing are prohibited.

Grey/Lockdown: There was no information provided for a Lockdown scenario. The government indicated these measures would be similar to its Stage 1 of the province’s original economic reopening plan, which resulted in numerous business closures.

Peel Region is the only area currently placed in the red/control level. All other public health units have been placed in lower tiers, with the exception of Toronto, who asked not to be included in the new system for another week.

Rilett said that he supports any measures that will allow restaurants to reopen and start generating revenue, but that some of the restrictions are “a little more difficult to understand.”

“Some restaurants fit 300 or more people and they could easily be spaced out and still get around the restaurant safely at more than 50,” he said. “But that’s common in all industries in this plan so it’s understood, but we could safely fit more than 50 in a lot of restaurants.”

He is also looking for clarity on a few of the new measures, such as the use of eye protection, a piece of equipment most restaurant staff didn’t need to use before this weekend.

Dr. Anna Banerji, infectious disease specialist and associate professor of pediatrics with Dalla Lana School of Public Health, agreed with Rilett that the capacity limits on restaurants do not make sense, as 50 people may be able to safely eat in some larger establishments, but in smaller ones, it can still be dangerous.

“Fifty people in a small space is a problem,” Banerji said. “Having 50 people in a bar, that could still spread COVID in a significant way. I know that it's difficult trying to find a balance between shutting things down and trying to reduce the spread of COVID and try to keep the economy going, so I think it's challenging, but again, there's a lot of inconsistencies.”

Banerji also says that considering the capacity limits, she doesn’t understand the health risk differences between seating four people at a table and six people, as long as they are properly distanced from other groups.

“Are you going to say, well families of five people can't go for dinner, even though it's one household?”

Dr. Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, goes even further to say that opening up restaurants in COVID-19 hot spots is reckless.

“If you increase social contact by opening restaurants, you will have a rise in cases, you just will,” Furness said.

“We know how COVID spreads, we can be more targeted and to be more targeted is to stop situations where people are in the same room sharing air, limited ventilation, no masks. That happens to define indoor dining and restaurants and that happens to define bars. Get alcohol involved and things get even more dangerous.”

More testing necessary as restaurants reopen

Furness argues that more stringent testing needs to occur as restrictions are eased in COVID-19 hot spots.

According to Furness, the reason why outbreaks are not being found in restaurants and bars is because cases are difficult to trace within that industry, as it is more often the staff, who have an occupational risk of exposure, contracting the disease.

“There's a clear relationship, we just we just not able to detect it,” he said. “If the waiter who gets infected in the restaurant never gets tested, then you can never find an epidemiological link to the restaurant.”

Two weeks ago provincial health officials released modelling data that showed the number of outbreaks associated with restaurants and bars since Aug. 1 appears to be much lower than the percentage associated with schools, child-care centres or long-term care facilities.

An outbreak is defined as two COVID-19 cases within a 14-day period, where both cases could reasonably be acquired at a single facility or event.

In Peel Region, the only public health unit in the red/control level, restaurants accounted for about three per cent of all outbreaks compared to grocery and retail (19 per cent), schools and daycares (20 per cent), and industrial settings (22 per cent).

Restaurants and bars accounted for eight per cent of outbreaks in York, two per cent of outbreaks in Ottawa and 14 per cent in Toronto since Aug. 1.

But Furness says that transmission in restaurants “simply isn’t being detected” because of a lack of active surveillance testing, a process in which public health officials look for COVID-19 cases instead of waiting for an ill person to book an appointment.

“They do not want to look for cases, they do not want to identify cases, they want really sick people to show up in the hospital and get a test,” he said. “This is extremely irresponsible and anyone who concludes that there isn't transmission happening in restaurants simply doesn't understand transmission and contact tracing.”

“I might be, I'd have to think about it, but I might be okay with opening some restaurants if I knew all the wait staff were being tested twice a week. Then you would know exactly where spread is happening, but there's no plan to do that.”