Disero unsure if 'heavy hand” of region rules is appropriate in NOTL
New COVID-19 rules across the province, along with additional restrictions by Niagara’s acting medical officer of health have some restaurant owners across Niagara fearing for the future of their businesses.
Some of those restaurateurs have been loudly critical of the new measures, saying their industry is being unfairly treated.
The restrictions, which came into effect this week, mean restaurants can no longer seat tables of more than four, can’t seat people together who aren’t in the same household, limits hours of operation and requires hand sanitizer at every table.
Chris Rigas, owner of the Old Firehall restaurant in St. Davids, which has been operating for 25 years, said the new regulations will “sink” businesses.
“They’re crippling, actually. I’m not gonna pull any punches. These restrictions are an abuse of power by the medical officer of health. They go far beyond anything the province is calling for,” Rigas said in an interview Monday night.
If friends can’t get together for dinner or colleagues for a business lunch, “It just eliminates so many avenues of revenue for the business,” he said.
“We already have a 50 per cent reduction in our seating areas, for the most part, and we have a maximum of 50 people allowed indoors. In the larger places, even if they have the table space, they can’t use it. So it’s only to a certain point that they’re able to conduct business,” he said.
“You can’t operate under those conditions — not profitably anyways. It’s just next to impossible. This is devastating.”
He said he suspects many small businesses will close if the restrictions continue for months – and even some franchises.
He said the restaurant business is “built around socializing.”
Restaurants and bars are “a social industry. We’re designed around people going out together for dinner,” Rigas said.
He said he doesn’t think restaurants are any worse for COVID spread than grocery stores.
“There’s no more risk here than there is at a Costco with 1,000 people. You can go there and get a hotdog with 1,000 of your closest friends, but you can’t sit down to dinner with your next door neighbour.”
However, Dr. Mustafa Hirji, Niagara’s acting medical officer of health, said in a media conference Thursday to announce the restrictions, that restaurants and bars have been where the region is seeing the virus spread in higer volumes.
He cited one “super-spreader” group of young adults linked to 43 cases in bars and restaurants. Public health is not releasing the names of those restaurants.
Rigas said he doesn’t think the spread is directly related to the restaurants.
“They were amongst a group that frequented a couple of different individual places. But it was not because of the socializing within the restaurant. (It) just so happened that when they asked these people for a list of places that they’ve been, the same couple of places, or three places showed up. And it’s not because of any fault of the individual places, just where this group of people were frequenting.”
NOTL Lord Mayor Betty Disero said the bulk of the regulations are provincial.
“Here’s the thing. Notwithstanding the fact that Dr. Hirji supplemented the provincial restriction by saying, ‘Have a hand sanitizer on the table’ and that kind of stuff, I believe the bulk of the hours of operation and all of that is really regulated by the province.”
She said the frustrating part for her is that Niagara-on-the-Lake has been doing so well with numbers, she’s not sure if the “heavy hand” of the region is necessary for the town.
“While I get it, we’re all in a region and we have to work together through this, each municipality is unique, and maybe the hours the regulated hours and stuff may not be as needed in Niagara-on-the-Lake as they are in some areas that are really, really increasing in numbers.”
She said if Niagara Region and the province are going to restrict businesses so much, those businesses are owed some compensation.
“The compensation package must support the cure, right? If you’re going to tell somebody ‘Well, you’re only limited to these many seats as many hours,’ we’ve got to go back to subsidies and payments while they’re trying to keep their head above water. And this time, I think we have to also ensure that the decisions to go through some of these programs is totally up to the business owner.”
“The last one with respect to rent subsidies, was in the hands of the landowners, who, some of them, were pretty cruel to the business people that rented from them and did not participate and really left their tenants that were trying to make ends meet vulnerable.”
Disero said she thinks the orders “may be a little bit too severe to our restaurants.”
“Like when you go into a grocery store, people are walking around, they’re not all in the same household,” she said.
The Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce also released a statement condemning Hirji’;s emergency orders and calling for them to be rescinded.
Rigas said the new restrictions also put a heavy onus on restaurants to enforce the region’s requirements, which he doesn’t agree with.
“We’re not here to be the be an agent of the government. We’re here to conduct business. This order puts us in an adversarial position with a customer. If they don’t want to divulge that information, what are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to turn our backs on them and let the money walk out the door?” he said.
“We don’t want that. We’ve had a hard enough time trying to enforce masking requirements and all the other stuff. But at the end of the day, we’re not here to be the police for the regional government.”
He said he thinks collecting contact information for people and times they enter and leave could be a violation of a customer’s Charter rights.
“I think in this country, you’re allowed to go to dinner with who you want, right? But secondly, it’s a violation of their privacy, too. They have to give their name, their phone number, or their email address, or whatever it is, plus the time of arrival plus the time of departure. I mean, that’s a little bit intrusive. If I was going out to a restaurant, I wouldn’t want all that information recorded about me.”
“I’m against every single one of those measures.”
Rigas said he would like to see the region rescind the order and has even called for Hirji to be removed from his position as medical health officer.
“We’d like to see council address this kind of abuse of power by the medical officer of health, what that remedy is, I don’t know what they’ll do. He’s an acting MOH right now, so whether or not they’d be willing to sanction him or remove him. I’m not sure what they’ll decide to do.”
“At the very least, what we’re looking for in this industry is to get rid of this order completely.”
Hirji said he put the restrictions in place using his authority under Section 22 of the Ontario Health Act.
“We are right now seeing a surge of cases in Niagara, which I think mirrors what we are seeing really across the province and around the country. This is obviously not the direction we want to be headed,” he said.
What’s more concerning to him, he said, is the number of deaths. Part way through November, there have already been as many deaths as in October, he said.
“It is likely we’re going to see that number increase further. And that’s quite concerning.”
Last week Hirji said the people who aren’t following emergency orders and continue to spread the virus will be directly to blame for further restrictions on businesses.
Martin Mazza, owner of Italian Pizza & Subs in Virgil, and a former town councillor, said the restrictions haven’t affected his business as badly, as he made the decision to close his restaurant to all dine-in customers from the beginning of the pandemic.
“Not to take sides on the argument on who’s right, who’s wrong, I will say that what’s been asked of people to date has not worked. So to continue on that path would be negligent. It wouldn’t be fair to everybody just to turn a blind eye, pretend everything’s OK. Everything’s not OK,” he said.
“Everything is getting worse, in my opinion. Changes need to happen. I am not a doctor or scientist to say what those changes should have been. I am just a law-abiding citizen doing my part and dealing with the hand that’s dealt to me.”
He said he feels for businesses that have taken steps to reopen.
“Because for the most part, they’re not to blame. But they’re made to be the scapegoat.”
He said the region, province and municipalities need to “get more on the same page” when it comes to restrictions.
“Listening to Dr. Hirji this morning saying that he had no idea the province was coming out with those measures on Friday. So that’s why the region’s got a different set of measures than the province does — well, if these are the people that are making the rules, they should talk a bit more, because we’re the ones that are left to enforce the rules. What set of rules are we following then? The town has a set of rules, the region has a set of rules, the provinces has a set of rules. Can we get a bit more consistency?”
Rigas said when compared to places like grocery stores, restaurants are doing “way more” in terms of safety.
“Even before COVID, the restaurant industry follows public health guidelines — we sanitize, we do all that stuff already, and we’ve doubled those measures because of COVID — and we take contact trace information to an extent. So if you compare what we’re doing to what a grocery store is doing, or a Costco, or a variety store or whatever, we’re head and shoulders doing way more.”
“To do this to us, really, it’s a killer. This will be a final nail. I mean, there’s a lot of places treading water as it is right now. This will make ‘em sink.”
He said it won’t have as great an impact on the Old Firehall.
“I’ve been here for 25 years and I’ve conducted my business in a way that allows me to absorb some of this,” Rigas said.
“The issue for me now is if it’s not profitable, if I end up having to drain myself of any reserves or whatever, then I’m forced to lay off my staff and reduce what I do, and it hurts them just as much as it hurts me.”
An online petition to rescind Hirji’s orders was started Monday and as of Wednesday had garnered about 3,600 names.
“We are demanding council either make Dr. Hirji rescind this order, and abide by the orders set forth by the Ontario Government, or relieve him from his position, and replace him,” the petition started by Robert George demands.
Disero and town staff received a letter from the provincial government Monday, which said bylaw and police officers should enforce fines.
Those fines can be up to $25,000 per day for non-compliance.
“Basically it said that these new regulations are meant to be enforced, and that every level of government, the region and the municipality and the (Niagara Regional Police), are expected to enforce them — regulations from the province,” Disero said.
She said the province has also asked Hirji to provide a list of how many inspection have been done by municipalities within the region.
“I don’t know why. But hopefully I’ll find out (Wednesday) at the region meeting, why they’re asking how many municipalities have actually been doing inspections.”
Disero said NOTL would have a difficult time enforcing the new rules.
“Really, with all these new regulations, it’s going to be impossible for us to have the resources to enforce everything that’s been laid out now.”