‘Let’s try a different approach.’ Restaurant owner urges government to pursue more targeted restrictions after spending $10,000 for Easter weekend

·4 min read

In the heart of Toronto's Little Italy, the owner of Café Diplomatico spent the past two weeks scrambling to prepare for the Easter long weekend.

The Ontario government had lifted restrictions on patio dining after months in lockdown, and Rocco Mastrangelo hurried to hire and train new staff, and to order enough ingredients and libations to handle the expected rush.

But on Saturday, more than $10,000 worth of supplies sat in the restaurant’s fridges, and the newly hired staff were left idle as Ontario entered its third province-wide pandemic lockdown — which, for Toronto, changed little aside from the rapid boomerang on outdoor dining.

Mastrangelo had worried this would happen, that opening was premature. He’d heard warnings about a grim third wave, despite the government go-ahead. He tried to stay optimistic. Now, he’s urging decision-makers to turn their focus to places where the virus is spreading quickly.

“I want everyone to stay safe and strong and healthy, but these lockdowns don’t seem to be working,” Mastrangelo said Saturday, as Ontario reported 3,000 new COVID-19 infections within the last day.

“I’d like to see, if they shut down the construction sites and perhaps the packing companies, let’s see how the virus goes then. Let’s try a different approach.”

Doctors across the GTA are echoing the refrain. At Humber River Hospital, emergency room physician Tasleem Nimjee has seen a barrage of cases in the last month. Patients were younger, more sick, battling more aggressive variant strains after being infected in essential workplaces and factories.

Provincial modelling bears this out, showing the variants disproportionately infecting those in essential jobs. And the virus was tearing through entire families, she said, with multiple generations —not just the elderly members — showing up in the hospital’s emergency room.

“We’ve seen so many of what we’d call leaky public health measures or leaky lockdowns, where they’ve not truly provided the circuit break that we’ve needed, and unfortunately that’s been paired with not fast enough vaccine rollout,” Nimjee said. “In additional, you have essential workers that are still going to work every day, and that don’t have paid sick leave.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, in announcing the latest lockdown, said the idea was to give more time for vaccine rollout and to ease pressure on intensive care units. As of Saturday, 451 people across the province were in ICU, dozens more than during the peak of the second wave.

Nimjee recalled spending more than an hour recently trying to resuscitate a patient in their 60s who “shouldn’t be this sick.” The patient died anyway. She dealt with a shocked patient in their 50s, on oxygen, who had been told their condition was steadily getting worse. “There’s this sense of disbelief for many, because they just didn’t think this would happen to them,” Nimjee said.

It was no longer shocking to see otherwise healthy people in their 40s in ICU, she said, and more patients were being hooked to machines that oxygenate their blood outside their bodies, to give COVID-battered lungs a break.

Steve Flindall, a York Region emergency doctor, said he recently saw a 24-year-old in ICU who didn’t have any other medical conditions that would put the patient at risk for severe COVID-19.

Generally, people with other conditions were still getting the most sick, he said. But it was no longer the only indication of who would wind up in ICU. He’s not optimistic that the current lockdown will change much. “Really, in Toronto and Peel, the only thing that’s changed is you can’t go eat in a restaurant,” he said.

Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, called on the Ontario government to explore options like widespread rapid testing for workplaces without known infections, instead of relying on similar lockdown measures each time cases rise.

“Business owners have been asking forever to see the evidence to suggest that the lockdown we’re using is targeted at the areas that COVID spread is happening, or that it’s effective,” he said, while cautioning he wasn’t trying to underplay the importance of public health measures.

The recent toggle over patios showed how businesses could be left in the lurch, he said — they’d just rehired employees and stocked up with perishable goods. “Then, we come to a screeching halt and reverse gears again,” he said.

Mastrangelo is left hoping the latest restrictions salvage some of the summer, which would normally be his most bustling season with the Euro and Copa America soccer championships. And he’s hoping to reopen before his new staff have to look for income elsewhere.

If he lost his staff members to other jobs, he said, “we’ll be back to the drawing board.”

Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star