Ontario is entering Step 3 of its reopening plan on Friday, and retailers and restaurant operators are excited for the increased capacity even without foreign tourism.
But Niagara’s acting medical officer of health Dr. Mustafa Hirji thinks the province moved to Step 3 before the impact of Step 2 was understood.
“It probably takes about three weeks before we can appreciate what effect the second step really had,” Hirji said.
The province announced its move to Step 3 nine days after the second phase had begun.
“I don’t think we actually know if we’re ready or not,” Hirji said.
He said Niagara Region has no plans at this time to institute any special restrictions for businesses under section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act.
Over the past 18 months, businesses have learned to roll with the pandemic punches.
“It’s going to be crazy busy. We’ve been full (on our patio) constantly,” said Adam Dodridge, manager of Corks Winebar and Eatery.
The border reopening would be good for business but the restaurant will do well even if American visitors are not yet allowed, he said.
“As soon as we can fully reopen (the restaurant) things are going to be good. We’ve been already pretty full, so it’s going to be good either way.”
Other restaurants felt the same.
“We’ll be able to fill the inside. It’s been pretty busy in the back (outdoor beer garden) just from people who live around here,” said Erin Pante, front desk housekeeper at the Olde Angel Inn.
She said the restaurant loves its local diners and will worry about tourists once the federal government opens the border.
“We love to have the Niagara people back. It’s not just about the tourists. But when the borders reopen, they are going to be just as welcome and they will feel like they’re from Canada,” she said.
Restaurants and retailers will be able to open on Friday with no cap on the number of people inside, so long as a two-metre distance can be maintained.
“Letting more people in will be a delight,” said Anne Froese, manager of Serendipity on Queen Street.
But the vagueness of the provincial guidelines has been troublesome.
“It leaves me with a little bit of a quandary because it doesn’t give me the formula,” she said.
For businesses that have been treating the threat of the pandemic seriously, vague guidelines from the province add a new layer of stress.
“We’re very strict with our masks and our sanitizer. How far can I go and still be safe with everybody?” she said.
Hirji said, “What the province is probably trying to do is allow businesses to get as close to normal as possible while keeping physical distancing in mind.”
The rules make more sense for restaurants than they do for retailers since tables can be set up two metres apart, the medical officer saidi.
Froese is wary that people are using their vaccinations as a way to skirt COVID-19 safety protocols.
“You see people that are relying on the fact that they’re double-vaccinated, but they may not be. How do we know?”
It is increasingly becoming the responsibility of individual businesses to balance safety precautions with boosting the economy as the provincial government relaxes restrictions.
“We’ll be monitoring quite strictly. But, you know, to open things up a bit further will be great for business and we’re looking forward to that,” Froese said.
Ontarians were out in Niagara-on-the-Lake in droves last weekend. Neil Cartagenise from Oakville was ambivalent about the coming third step of reopening.
“I feel good and bad about it. I’m happy for retailers but I’m not sure about condensed indoor space,” he said.
He has not dined at a patio since restrictions were relaxed in June.
“I just don’t feel that we are going to be able to ensure that everyone is vaccinated. People are going to get careless.”
Cartagenise does not want Ontarians to lose sight of what is at stake during the pandemic.
“To me, it’s all been about the hospitals and intensive care units. If we can keep people from dying, if it becomes just another flu where you're sick for a week then I think we can get through it.”
He emphasized the importance of businesses reopening and getting back to normal. He was also supportive of the federal government opening the border – on one condition.
“I have no problem with it so long as there’s a vaccination passport. If people can prove that they’ve been vaccinated, what’s the difference if I come and shop in Niagara-on-the-Lake or if I shop in Buffalo?”
Hirji wants to remind people that a vaccine passport is not a novel idea.
“For international travel it’s probably where we are going to end up regardless. Canada hasn’t used it (in the past) but other countries around the world have had vaccine requirements for yellow fever or meningococcal disease to name a few,” he said.
“We just happen to be a country where we haven’t had to worry about that before.”
Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report