Who gets to dine in together? In B.C., it depends on who you ask

·4 min read

In late December, Katie Matthews and her husband broke their four-month hiatus from restaurant dining and went to a patio at a popular North Vancouver restaurant.

She soon spotted uneasy cues. A couple who joined another couple at a table, greeting each other with hugs. Snippets of conversations from a family who appeared to be catching up.

"I was pretty uncomfortable," said the 39-year-old stay-at-home mom.

"Obviously, you have no idea what someone's circumstance is. They could all live under one roof. But when you hear the conversations ... it's pretty obvious that they're not part of the same household."

B.C. remains one of the few provinces to allow in-person dining during the second wave. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says only members of the same household should eat together at a table, or if a person lives alone, their bubble of one or two people.

But the reality, many diners say, is far different, with groups of friends, extended families and double dates populating tables.

The disparity highlights a broader frustration around pandemic measures: those who adhere to them and those who don't. It's a sentiment that reached a tipping point this week after Henry urged people to do more.

"A lot of people, it seems, have decided to move onto that stage of their pandemic," Matthews said. "And for those of us who are watching it happen, it's really frustrating. Everybody wants to get back to normal life."

'Expectation' diners follow rules, province says

Some diners say there's a lack of clarity around the restaurant rule, arguing it hasn't been widely communicated outside of Henry's briefings.

Diners who contacted CBC News, many of whom asked not to share their names, said they'd had uncomfortable experiences with friends and family who assured them dining among multiple households is allowed.

B.C.'s health ministry said in a statement that Henry has been "very clear" on her position on dining out, including that people should not be going to restaurants with anyone outside their household or their core bubble for those living alone.

The rule, however, does not fall under the enforceable provincial health officer order, which caps tables at six people and limits hours in which alcohol can be served.

"While not all PHO directions are covered under an order, it is our expectation that everyone follows all of these guidelines in order to keep themselves and their communities safe," the ministry said.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Ian Tostenson, the head of B.C.'s restaurant and food services association, said the industry supports the guideline but can't enforce it.

Tostenson said the role of restaurants is to follow the province's health standards, such as keeping tables two metres apart and lowering the music volume.

"It's not who's at the table. It really isn't," he said. "I think we're best to let that go, because we're going to get too judgmental and point fingers."

It's a point raised by some diners who question the guideline.

Jamie, a construction project manager in Chilliwack, who asked not to share his last name over fear of backlash, said he goes once a week to a neighbourhood pub with a colleague.

The two work together in close proximity in the office and at job sites, and Jamie said his colleague is the only person he dines with besides his wife.

"It's ludicrous to tell people they have to work in close proximity 40 to 50 hours a week to do their part for the economy, but then suggest that if they grab a bite and a beer together after that work week, that they are being irresponsible," he said in an email.

'We're not checking people's addresses'

The measure has whittled the already-limited clientele at restaurants, discouraging business owners from turning away possible rule breakers.

Staff are also wary of making assumptions, aware that a group of friends could possibly be roommates.

"We're not checking people's addresses or anything," said Darin Graham, the owner of Boardwalk Cafe and Games in Abbotsford, B.C.

"We kind of just take it at face value, and if people are coming out, we're going to treat them as we're supposed to."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Savannah Sutherland, a 22-year-old hostess at a Vancouver restaurant, agrees that it's difficult to call anyone out when her livelihood depends on their business.

But she said seeing multiple households is frustrating, especially in more egregious instances.

She recalled a group of eight people — made up of four couples — who came to her restaurant over the holidays to grab takeout.

She learned the group was from Ontario and had travelled to Whistler for holidays. They were picking up food for their trip back to the airport.

Sutherland said seeing friends isn't an option right now working a high-contact job.

"It's hard to see everyone else go out and I just can't."