Even though it’s only mid-February, Stephen Beckta felt like a man emerging from a long, lonely winter on Monday.
The well-known Ottawa restaurateur said the province’s announcement that it was lifting all capacity restrictions at restaurants, bars and a host of other businesses as of Thursday and scrapping its proof of vaccination requirements on March 1 was like a “bit of sunshine” after a dark two years for his industry.
“The last three weeks especially have been incredibly challenging, but I feel like we’re starting to come to an end of it,” the owner of Beckta Dining & Wine, Gezellig and Play Food & Wine told OBJ on Monday afternoon. “Today was the first glimmer of hope we’ve had in a while.”
While masks will still be required inside businesses and other public places for the time being, Premier Doug Ford said the downward trend in hospitalizations from COVID-19 means the province won’t require the vaccine passport system to be expanded to include a third-dose requirement.
“I think we're going in the right direction, and I'm confident if we keep going down this path, there won't be a reason for it,” he said.
Ford insisted the steps are not a result of pressure from anti-vaccine mandate protesters.
“Today's announcement is not because of what's happening in Ottawa or Windsor, but despite it,” he said Monday.
"Today was the first glimmer of hope we’ve had in a while."
“The extraordinary measures that we introduced during this pandemic were always intended as a last resort. I stood at this very podium and promised you that these tools would only be used for as long as they were absolutely necessary and not one day longer. The removal of these measures has always been our objective.''
Public health indicators have been improving, with the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests dropping from a peak of nearly 40 per cent to 13 per cent, and hospitalizations down to less than 1,400 from a high of more than 4,000, Ford said.
In light of those metrics, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore presented a plan to lift the COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine certificates, Ford said, noting that the plan had been in the works since before protesters began occupying downtown Ottawa more than two weeks ago.
Ontario is now fast-tracking previously announced steps to lift restrictions, including moving the next step of its reopening plan up to Thursday instead of next Monday.
Social gathering limits increasing
On that day, social gathering limits will increase to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors, while capacity limits will be removed in places such as restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theatres and meetings and events spaces.
Meanwhile, capacity at businesses such as grocery stores, pharmacies and retail stores will be set at the number of people who can maintain a distance of two metres.
Less than two weeks later, on March 1, capacity limits will be lifted in all remaining indoor public settings and proof-of-vaccination requirements will end for all settings.
Public health units can still use various tools to respond to their local COVID-19 situation and businesses and other settings can still require proof of vaccination if they choose, the province said.
Convention industry leaders said Monday the moves will help boost a sector that’s been devastated by the pandemic.
“The past 23 months have been difficult for our industry,” Nina Kressler, president and CEO of the Shaw Centre, said in an email to OBJ. “The recent announcement of lifting capacity limits allows us to work towards attracting larger events benefiting the centre and its stakeholders.”
After nearly two years of on-again, off-again measures aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19, Beckta said he’s hopeful that his industry has finally seen the last of capacity limits and other crackdowns.
'As confident as I can be'
“I’m as confident as I can be at this point, recognizing that we’ve been burned before,” he said. “If you look at jurisdictions around the world who are ahead of us in terms of the Omicron curve, it shows that with the lifting of restrictions, there are not the catastrophic effects on the health care systems that people were worried about. I’m hopeful and fairly confident that this is going to be it.”
The veteran entrepreneur said the last few weeks have been especially trying as businesses in the capital cope with the ongoing “Freedom Convoy” demonstrations.
Beckta Dining & Wine is located on Elgin Street near the thick of the protests. Beckta said the restaurant has only been open three or four nights in the past two weeks and had to shut its doors to a “full house” of expected customers on Saturday because staff were concerned for their safety.
He said some of his employees were “accosted” by protesters on their way to the restaurant, prompting the “difficult decision” to close.
“We were fearful about what might happen,” Beckta said. “The energy in the air was very charged. There was not the police presence that we’d seen the previous week.”
While Play is not in the heart of the protest zone, the ByWard Market establishment has also seen its sales plummet over the past few weeks because many diners are reluctant to venture anywhere downtown, Beckta added.
“When we were open, sometimes we’d (see) only 10 people,” he said. “But we needed to provide some income to our staff and some sense of normalcy and some sense of movement forward.
“It’s just demoralizing for our teams. The good news is the team has a lot of resiliency, especially after the last two years. I feel like today was the first bit of sunshine and good news after two years of very challenging times.”
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said Monday's announcement feels like a true step toward small businesses' economic recovery, but sought clarity for those that choose to maintain proof of vaccination.
“Just telling them that they're free to keep it – does that mean that they're free to keep it without risks of a human rights case or lawsuit?” said CFIB president Dan Kelly.
“I suspect not. And so I do believe that businesses will be taking on potentially some legal risk if they maintain a proof-of-vaccination system in their business.”
In order to spur businesses' recovery, Kelly said governments need to boost consumer confidence to take part in the reopening.
“We’ve told Canadians for two straight years that it's dangerous to leave your home, stay home as much as possible or leave only with really, really heavy restrictions around it,” he said.
“There are going to be many, many Canadians that are going to remain fairly hunkered down, because this is a pretty big shift in messaging. And so it's going to take, I think, some work on the part of governments and public health officials to provide those messages of reassurance.”
– With additional reporting from the Canadian Press