Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced on February 14 that the province is lifting all restaurant capacity limits starting at 12:01 a.m. on February 17, three days ahead of schedule. Mandatory proof of vaccination for restaurant guests will then be scrapped from March 1.
Noting that COVID-19 positivity rates and new hospital admissions have fallen week over week, signalling that “the Omicron peak is behind us”, Ford has now brought forward the date for moving to the next stage.
Effective February 17, numerous restrictions are being loosened. Most pertinently for the foodservice and hospitality industry, capacity limits are being removed in restaurants, bars, and other food or drink establishments without dance facilities.
The indoor capacity limit at nightclubs and restaurants where there is dancing will be set at 25 per cent. Limits at grocery and retail stores will be maintained at or increased to the number of people who can maintain two metres physical distance.
Then, effective March 1, assuming that health indicators continue to improve, Ontario will follow provinces such as Alberta and Saskatchewan in lifting its proof of vaccination mandates for all settings.
Mandatory proof of vaccination had become something of a standard in Canada over the last few months. A provincial news release notes that businesses and other settings may choose to continue to require proof of vaccination if they so wish.
Masking requirements will remain in place at this time, with a specific timeline to lift this measure to be communicated at a later date.
Cautious optimism from industry advocates
Tony Elenis, CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association (ORHMA), said that the industry “cannot wait to open up full capacity and start seeing restrictions go away for good,” as quoted by CTV News.
“While I say this with a few reservations, it does feel like today may mark the beginning of the long road to Ontario’s small business recovery,” added Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
Kelly added that CFIB’s latest survey data shows that 74 per cent of Ontario’s small businesses believe it’s time for capacity restrictions to be lifted and 66 per cent say it’s time for proof-of-vaccination requirements to be eliminated.
Elenis added that he believes “the vast majority” of restaurants will abandon the proof-of-vaccination process.
“I believe they are going to kiss it goodbye because in many cases there have been confrontations at the door. It served its purpose and the industry embraced it as a tool to prevent future lockdowns but it’s time for vaccination proof to go away.”
However, ORHMA believes some restaurants may decide to keep the QR Code requirement to instill “consumer confidence” in their own patrons.
Both Elenis and Kelly are calling on public officials to change their narrative and tell customers that indoor dining is safe.
“What the industry is waiting for all three levels of government including the health department to start promoting restaurants as a safe place to go in and dine,” says Elenis. “We know indoor dining is safer than the house gatherings that have happened over the years. Hotel meeting rooms, events and restaurants all need help. We need governments to start promoting that it’s healthy to travel and healthy to go and visit and eat in a restaurant.”