Good weather seen as key to success as Ontario eases restaurant rules, patios open

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Outdoor dining is now permitted everywhere in Ontario, a change observers say gives restaurants a fighting chance to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It gets restaurants back in the business of directly serving people," James Rilett, vice-president of Central Canada for Restaurants Canada, said in an interview on Monday.

"It gives them a light at the end of the tunnel and a chance to make it through this."

The food service industry has been pummeled by public health restrictions over the past year.

Many Ontario eateries served their last in-person customer in early November.

But Ontario extended a lifeline to struggling restaurants late last week by adjusting the rules for restaurants and bars in several regions.

The changes included allowing outdoor dining with physical distancing in areas in the grey or lockdown zones like Toronto and Peel as of Saturday.

Yet the significance of allowing patio dining when indoor dining continues to be banned largely hinges on the spring weather, Rilett said.

The Duke of York pub in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood saw lineups with wait times of up to an hour on both Saturday and Sunday, said Cindy Simpson, executive vice-president of Imago Restaurants.

"The weather could not have been better, it was about 15 degrees and sunny each day," she said. "I stood outside all weekend, talking to our guests and thanking them for coming, we were so happy to see them and it felt fantastic."

Still, even with good weather food service operators will likely continue to rely on government support, Simpson said, referring to funding that has helped subsidize wages and rents for restaurants.

"We have two large patios so there are a good number of seats but we'll have to figure out in the next couple of weeks if it's enough for us to break even or even make a little bit of money," she said. "But we probably wouldn't be able to open without government support."

Meanwhile, some observers have criticized the rule limiting tables for outdoor dining in lockdown areas to members of the same household, with exemptions only permitted for patrons who live alone and caregivers.

But Simpson, incoming chairwoman of Restaurants Canada, said customers understand and respect the rules and staff are ready to remind patrons of the rules if needed.

"We're a very regulated industry so we're used to following rules," she said. "We're not going to sacrifice our reopening because people from different households want to sit together."

Meanwhile, food and drink establishments in the province's second-strictest red category are now able to increase capacity to 50 people indoors, up from the previous limit of 10, while restaurants in orange zones can have 100 people indoors, twice the previous cap of 50.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2021.

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press