New limits on bars, meeting facilities strike 'reasonable balance,' pub owner says

Dave Longbottom
Flora Hall owner Dave Longbottom says he's glad the province didn't order full-scale closures of bars and restaurants, saying such an approach would be "counterproductive." File photo by Mark Holleron

The province imposed new “targeted restrictions” on Ottawa bars, nightclubs, gyms and meeting facilities Friday as the number of COVID-19 cases in the city continued to spike ​– but some local businesses said they were confident their bottom lines could withstand the latest round of restrictions.

The new measures in the virus hotspots of Ottawa, Toronto and Peel Region include limiting the number of people in eating and drinking establishments to 100, with a maximum of six patrons allowed per table. Gyms and fitness centres must limit capacity to 50 people and restrict group classes to a maximum of 10.

In addition, the number of people allowed in an entire meeting or convention facility is now capped at 50 ​– a move that quickly reverses a decision just over a month ago that raised the limit to 50 people per meeting room.

The crackdown comes the same day Ottawa set a single-day record with 142 new cases of COVID-19. 

The alarming rise in infections in the capital prompted Ottawa’s medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, to declare Friday that the city’s health system “is in crisis” and on the verge of collapse. Hospitalizations have doubled over the last 10 days, Etches said, and she urged residents to cancel weekend get-togethers in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.

Dave Longbottom, owner of Flora Hall brew pub in Centretown, applauded the province’s efforts to reverse the troubling trend and flatten the curve. He said he already imposes strict limits of four customers per table and has never allowed more than 50 people inside his establishment at once, staff included.

“I think they’re (striking) a reasonable balance,” he said of the new rules, adding he’s glad provincial officials “kept their finger off the trigger” and didn’t order full-scale closures.

The longtime entrepreneur wrote a letter to Mayor Jim Watson this week warning there could be economic and health repercussions to shutting down bars and restaurants completely.

“I think it’s reasonable for everybody to retrench their commitment to keeping their social circles small, but by no means do I think that it’s reasonable or advisable to move into some sort of a lockdown state,” Longbottom said. 

“If you end up discouraging people from socializing in professionally operated, clean, sanitized spaces that are being supervised by professionals with a lot to lose, all you’re going to succeed in doing is driving people to gather in private circumstances where … the risk of spread is far higher. To me, it’s counterproductive.”

"If you end up discouraging people from socializing in professionally operated, clean, sanitized spaces that are being supervised by professionals with a lot to lose, all you’re going to succeed in doing is driving people to gather in private circumstances where … the risk of spread is far higher."

At the Château Laurier, director of public relations Deneen Perrin said most of the hotel’s nearly 40,000 square feet of meeting space has remained unoccupied even after the province loosened restrictions on the number of people permitted in the facilities last month. She said the building has not had more than 50 participants booked in all its rooms combined since the limits were raised.

“This won’t have a greater impact than the (previous restrictions) already had,” she said. “People have not been hosting big meetings, or big weddings for that matter. Right now, people are keeping things very small. All of this has been devastating.”

Zoe’s, the iconic hotel’s famed restaurant and lounge, had already set up tables in the adjacent reading room to leave plenty of room for physical distancing, Perrin added. She said the new six-person-per-table limit won’t have a major effect on business.

“It’s a large enough venue that we certainly have the capacity to work with that,” Perrin said.

The measures announced Friday come as the government has faced growing criticism over crippling lines at assessment centres, a ballooning testing backlog and a surge in cases. 

Premier Doug Ford said the latest moves were based on the latest evidence.

“We have made some tough but necessary decisions always based on the best medical advice and scientific evidence available,” he said.

The government also said it is putting a “pause” on 10-person social bubbles.

'Keep your circles tight'

It said that all Ontarians should only have close contact with those who live in the same household and people should maintain a two-metre physical distance from everyone else. Those who live alone can consider having close contact with another household, the government said.

“All we're saying is just be careful,” Ford said. “Just keep your circles tight.”

Ontario reported a record 732 cases Friday and a backlog of 90,513 tests.

Toronto's medical officer of health called on the province to do more, suggesting it ban indoor restaurant dining, close gyms and ask people to only leave their homes for essential trips.

Dr. Eileen de Villa said while she has some authority to make such changes under existing public health regulations, she received legal advice that it would be “unprecedented” for a local medical officer of health to enact such broad changes.

“I am therefore urging you to act in collaboration with the City of Toronto to implement these measures in as timely a fashion as possible,” she said in a letter to the province.

Both the Ontario Hospital Association and the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario have called for tougher restrictions on hotspot regions. 

Longbottom, meanwhile, said many business owners are frustrated at what he called mixed messaging from politicians and health authorities. He said there are “too many voices” offering conflicting assessments of the severity of the crisis, a point he emphasized in his letter to the mayor.  

“I think it generates more uncertainty, and that then causes people to be unsure as to what is safe and what is not safe,” Longbottom said.

– With files from the Canadian Press