"I feel horrible" - Restaurant industry braces for next four weeks


In recent days like so many others in Ontario, Charles Khabouth would wake up and wait for the province's daily COVID-19 data to be posted, wondering if each new day was the one where indoor dining would once again stop. 

"We can all see the writing on the wall," he said Friday. "It is happening." 

The President and CEO of Toronto's Ink Entertainment, which operates 23 venues including restaurants, bars, nightclubs and a hotel, says Ontario's latest restrictions in Toronto, Peel and Ottawa on gatherings has him less concerned about himself, and more so about his staff. 

"It's not even a financial burden for me anymore," he said reflecting on this staff, which before the coronavirus, was at 2,800 people across his enterprises. 

That eventually dropped over the last half year to 800. 

"And I have a feeling we're going to have to lay off about half of that as well now, so it's a bit of a rollercoaster with the staff," he said. "That feels horrible." 

The prohibition on indoor dining will take effect at midnight, along with a slew of other gatherings including indoor gyms, fitness centres (yoga, dance), casinos, cinemas and performing arts venues. 

Premier Doug Ford said it was the hardest decision he's had to make during his term. 

When asked how who he is most frustrated with, Khabouth says he's in the middle when it comes to members of the public being too relaxed with public health measures, as well as government and public health officials. 

On one hand he says, there were some infections among his own staff, but Toronto Public Health linked them all to after-work activity like parties.

"All of it, not a single infection came through our doors, our restaurants," he said. "98 per cent of them have been adhering to all the regulations, we've been so tight because we were so concerned about getting shut down."

"What people do after hours, what people do on their own free time, nobody has control over that." 

But he also thinks what the government is doing could backfire, because since most restaurants had implemented so many public health measures like masks, tables at a distance, more patios and sanitizing, it could push people back into more indoor private parties as it gets a bit colder. 

Chief Coroner of Ontario and Executive Lead Ontario’s chief coroner and executive lead, COVID-19 Testing Approach, Dr. Dirk Huyer, repeated Friday that the health table is looking at any ways to prevent further spread of the virus in the community

"Prevention, we want to prevent spread and we want to prevent that in every way possible to stop people from being sick," he said. "This is about gatherings where people are in close proximity, without masks in a position of more relaxed, with friends, laughing, talking and sharing some time together and not unfortunately recognizing that there's likely a greater opportunity and a greater propensity to spread." 

With at least four weeks with indoor dining stopped, Khabouth urges everyone to follow public health guidelines, because like it or not, everyone does have a responsibility. 

But Erik Joyal with the Ascari Hospitality Group is not optimistic. 

"I think everybody would be dreaming in Technicolor a little bit here if we think that in 28 days, we're just going to back to where we were yesterday," he said. "Yes it's 28 days and we'll review after that point, but unless there's a really dramatic change in a positive way, 28 days is going to last a heck of a lot longer than that." 

"That's my biggest anxiety and fear right now." 

Ontario's decision comes a week after Toronto's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa called for the restrictions to indoor dining and fitness classes, along with advising people to only leave home for essential purposes. 

She recommended 28 days because it would cover two incubation periods of the virus, so that by that time if cases have gone down, the impact on the health care sector would either stabilize or start to subside. 

Both Joyal and Nathan Hynes, owner of the Auld Spot Pub on the Danforth, said at least there's revamped federal financial supports in place, even if they come much too late. 

"Having this rent relief, which is way too late by the way, this should've happened right at the beginning, but I'm thankful it's here now," he said. 

However, with the supports in place, industry stakeholder group Restaurants Canada has dire predictions for what this will mean. 

In a statement following the news, the organization said it suspects sales losses of as much as 80 per cent for full-service restaurants and 40 per cent for quick-service. 

It also projects 12,000 jobs losses in Ottawa, 33,000 in Toronto and 14,900 in Peel Region. 

"Restaurants deserve to see the data driving this decision and will need immediate emergency assistance so they can continue contributing to the social and economic fabric of the communities they serve,” President and CEO Todd Barclay said.