UPDATED: Province boosts capacity limits at restaurants and bars to 50%

Eatery owners argued one-size-fits-all customer caps were unfair to owners of larger establishments
Restaurant shot

A day after three of the region’s largest business groups called on the provincial government to ditch the hard cap on indoor capacity at bars and restaurants, the province has loosened its restrictions.

Ottawa moved into the more restrictive red zone in the province's pandemic scale on Friday. Initially, red-zone rules stated that bars and restaurants would be limited to 10 patrons inside and four customers per table.  

But late Friday afternoon, the province announced it was "cautiously adjusting" its framework to allow bars and restaurants to operate at 50 per cent capacity, up to a maximum of 50 customers indoors and subject to physical distancing rules. The new limits take effect at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday.

In a joint letter to Premier Doug Ford on Thursday, the Ottawa Board of Trade, the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas and the Regroupement des gens d’affaires de la Capitale nationale said the one-size-fits-all approach to capacity limits is unfair. 

They urged the province to replace the hard caps with a formula based on the size of the establishment, similar to the rules that allow supermarkets, for example, to operate at 75 per cent capacity.

“Our immediate ask as Ottawa enters the red zone in the framework is to change from hard caps to percentage of capacity in service areas for all businesses regardless of sector,” the letter says. 

“This supports the physical distancing mandate. In addition, it ensures the percentage of capacity is equal for all businesses. The spread of the virus does not change depending on whether you are at a supermarket or hardware store.”

Vittoria Trattoria co-owner Domenic Santaguida said the 10-person cap handcuffs owners of larger restaurants like his, which normally seats 145 patrons. 

“I think they need to put some more time and effort into putting a plan in place that takes into consideration individual circumstances,” he said. “Only having 10 (customers) is a bit of a joke. It’s an arbitrary number. Where’s the methodology where they came up with 10?”

"Only having 10 (customers) is a bit of a joke. It’s an arbitrary number."

Mayor Jim Watson told CTV Morning Live Friday he also doesn’t think the 10-person limit in restaurants and bars makes sense.

“Don't count on a per-head basis​ – it should be based on square footage,” Watson said. “A big restaurant like Red Lobster that might be able to accommodate 150 people is going to have 10 people, but then a little café that normally accommodates 20 people is allowed to have 10 people.

“I think you got to come up with a percent of the square footage that seems to be more of a reasonable suggestion. Who’s going to open a restaurant if they have 150 seats, but they're only allowed 10 people in?”

The business organizations also urged the province to give them more lead time before restrictions are tightened. Restaurant and bar owners found out only on Thursday that the city was moving into the red zone on Friday.

“We have consistently called upon you to give adequate notice to businesses when there is a status change that affects them,” the letter says. 

“Your agreement and adherence to this protocol demonstrates an appreciation for the operational challenges and financial impacts they face when forced to follow new regulations virtually overnight.”

Santaguida has fridges stocked with food he bought earlier in the week in anticipation of seating nearly 400 diners this weekend. He said he’ll now be lucky if he gets 75.

“We had thousands of dollars worth of food come in based on (customer traffic) we had for previous weekends,” he said, adding he’ll likely either donate the leftovers or give them to staff.

With the mercury expected to hit at least 12 degrees on Saturday, Santaguida said he’s planning to open Vittoria Trattoria’s patio. But he said he wasn't expecting a rush of customers lining up to dine outdoors.

“It’s a hard sell at 10, 12 degrees to sit outside for a dinner,” he said.