For the first time in more than a year and a half, Toronto’s restaurants and gyms may be operating at full capacity on Monday, but that doesn’t mean they all will.
While some local business owners see this as a sign that their historic experience is coming to an end, others say the change will be “barely noticeable”, thanks to the desert hub of downtown Toronto. And with the end of the vaccine mandate set for this winter, some restaurateurs are giving up dining indoors altogether.
Amr Elimam, owner of the Papyrus restaurant in Danforth, has been especially careful during the pandemic: He closed the indoor dining room in March last year, before it was tidy up, and has yet to reopen it.
But as the number of COVID cases began to trend in the right direction and acceptance of the vaccine increased in recent months, he decided he would invite customers in once the capacity restrictions were lifted.
That plan was quickly rejected when Elimam heard that Ontario’s vaccine mandates would end in January.
“I don’t know who was giving advice to the people who run the province, but this is not in the interest of public health or business,” he said. “This means that people who don’t want to get vaccinated only have to wait a couple more months. So my staff and I will be exposed to unvaccinated people, indoors, in the dead of winter. That is not acceptable. “
It’s not worth it now, Elimam said, to reopen this week only to close again in January.
Besides, he had just felt comfortable dining inside, sure that he would be surrounded by vaccinated people. That will not be able to continue.
“I cannot tolerate the risk of sitting next to someone who is not vaccinated without either of us wearing masks,” he said. “I think this is going to be terrible for all kinds of indoor activities. I don’t think (the province) really considered the impact. Many people, like me, only feel safe when they are surrounded by vaccinated people. “
For some restaurants, like WVRST, a German brewery designed for communal dining at massive tables, the end of restrictions indoors marks a return to the way that pre-pandemic customers had missed.
“Obviously there is still some logistics to figure out, but we are very excited to get back to our communal style tables and get things back to the way it was,” said Victoria Ross, WVRST location manager on King Street.
“I’ve had people who have come back for the first time in a long time upset that we don’t have the tables set up like we used to, so we’re really happy that that’s coming back.”
Barry Taylor, director of operations at The Ballroom, a downtown restaurant with a bowling alley, said he’s excited to be able to fill the space again. The pandemic catalyzed the most difficult period in his 35-year career, he said, and it is encouraging to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Taylor said he takes the lifting of restrictions as a sign that restaurants are “finally being treated equally” after stadiums and concert halls saw indoor capacity expand earlier this month.
“A sense of relief and justice is at stake,” said Taylor, who also sits on the board of directors of the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association.
“But we still have some major challenges ahead. As much as we’re ready to get started, our industry still suffers from a shortage of staff. I know there are some restaurants that operate with limited hours because they no longer have the same equipment. “
Taylor said another hurdle is the end of government wage and rent subsidies, a blow that is perhaps most acutely felt in the gymnasiums of downtown Toronto.
The ending capacity restrictions “won’t make a big difference to our income,” said Stacy Irvine, co-founder of Totum Life Science, which has five gym locations in Toronto.
“Space restrictions were never really the problem,” he said. “The real problem with gyms is that when the pandemic happened, everyone stopped going and settled in their homes with Pelotons. If you have gyms in the city center, where three of ours are, there is no one there. It is a ghost town. The opening of capacities does not help us, because there are no people down there. “
The termination of subsidies is a “huge problem” for Toronto’s fitness industry, he said. Without their help, all the owners can do is cut their expenses as much as possible and hope that the owners “cooperate” with them as they wait – and pray – for the city center to repopulate.