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Just because you're allowed to dine out during a pandemic, should you?

After months away from restaurants, the opportunity to dine out has become a reality in much of the country. Once bristling with energy, restaurant dining rooms have been redefined to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Acrylic partitions, physical distancing, hand sanitizer and face masks are now as commonplace as tables and chairs.

With a sudden rise of infection among young people , “concerning” rates of COVID-19 in B.C. and Alberta reportedly on the cusp of a second wave, although some may feel the risk has passed, it clearly remains. And while health authorities deem outdoor dining to be a relatively safe option (when good hand hygiene and physical distancing is practiced), the enclosed nature of dining rooms makes them inherently higher risk.

Depending on where you live, you might already be allowed to dine indoors, but does this mean you should? As much as you might miss restaurants, choosing to take a seat in a dining room puts not just you as an individual at risk, but everyone you come into contact with. One-third of the country’s foodservice workers are still out of work due to the pandemic, according to Restaurants Canada . For restaurateurs, the question of whether to reopen dining rooms is far from a straightforward one, and ultimately comes down to weighing the risks and rewards.

“My litmus or ‘gut’ check is when I personally would feel comfortable as a diner or in any of the staff positions,” says Toronto restaurateur Roger Yang, owner of Avelo Restaurant and Pizzeria Du, adding that he’d like to see the R0 (the average number of people who will contract the disease from a single infected person) consistently below one for several weeks and minimal risk of community transmission before considering a return to indoor dining. “I wouldn’t want guests to come if I wouldn’t feel safe myself, and I wouldn’t want anyone to work in a position where I wouldn’t feel safe.”

Chef Janice Tiefenbach of Montreal restaurant Elena doesn’t plan on dining indoors anytime soon, and doesn’t encourage her staff to either. Recognizing that each business will approach the option to reopen in their own way, “I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do,” she says. “I don’t think that the weight and responsibility should be on servers or busboys to maintain safety in their environment to the degree that’s necessary at this time. I don’t think that’s a reasonable expectation to put on people that are being paid minimum wage in many cases.”

As with food couriers, foodservice employees are now frontline workers during a pandemic, says Chris MacDonald , who teaches ethics at Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University. He points out that while people can be drawn to risky occupations because of high pay or simply because they enjoy taking chances, this isn’t necessarily the case with hospitality. The risk associated with interacting with the public during COVID-19 wasn’t part of the job description, and some workers may not have other options.

If you choose to partake in indoor dining at this point of the pandemic, “it behooves us to treat (servers) well,” says MacDonald. Go above and beyond when it comes to following their instruction, he suggests, and tip lavishly if you can afford to. “You should always be nice to the waitstaff, but in July of 2020 I think it’s just absolutely essential that you realize they are the ones who are at the highest risk,” he says, adding that going back to restaurants should be considered a privilege. “Don’t overdo it. Don’t think that this means life is suddenly back to normal because there is still a risk, and public health authorities are still worried about second and subsequent waves.”

Some public health experts have attributed a spike of COVID-19 cases in parts of the U.S. to the reopening of restaurants and bars. In B.C., restaurants have been permitted to offer dine-in service since mid-May. After an increase in infections, health officials announced new rules on July 22: Guests of restaurants, bars and nightclubs are required to be seated in groups no larger than six, ordering from the bar is no longer allowed and dance floors are now closed.

When much of Ontario moved into Stage 3 in mid-July, allowing for restaurants to reopen their dining rooms, 10 regions — including Toronto, Niagara and Hamilton — were kept in Stage 2. Provincial Health Minister Christine Elliott cited the need for more COVID-19 data from the regions held back before opening them up further. At the time, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health David Williams expressed hopes the entire province would enter Stage 3 by the end of July.

“I think (reopening restaurant dining rooms) can be done safely,” says Alison Thompson , professor at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto, and a specialist in the ethics of pandemics. “But I think we need to prepare for the fact that we’ll likely see an uptick in cases again. Do we have the capacity to manage that aggressively, and do the contact tracing that we need to make sure it doesn’t turn into something bigger? The data coming from Western Canada is not that promising at the moment, so it does make me a little nervous.” To help ensure safety on both sides, she adds, if you decide to dine out, choose a restaurant where you know the staff is being protected.

Toronto Mayor John Tory has asked the province to implement additional measures for bars, restaurants and indoor dining before the city moves into Stage 3. His six recommendations include capacity restrictions, customer logs (including name and contact information, the date and check in/out times) and COVID-19 screening protocols for staff. “We have seen in other jurisdictions that further reopening can lead to increased outbreaks of COVID-19 and growing case count numbers. We do not want to go in that direction,” he said in a statement.

Yang is encouraged by the message Mayor Tory is sending with his recommendations. “The most responsible thing to do is mitigate risk as much as possible based on the information that’s available — and to be cautious and take it slow. I think the city needs to take it slowly as well. I’m glad to see Mayor Tory’s comments that show some of that, and I hope the province pays attention,” he says. “I’d like to see more cautious thinking — like some kind of monitoring and enforcement for these important rules.”

He opened Avelo — a vegan fine-dining restaurant — on the main floor of a two-storey Victorian heritage building last fall, with plans to open a bar (Bar Avelo) on the second floor this spring. Prior to the government issuing orders to do so, Yang temporarily closed the restaurant in mid-March and put plans for the bar on hold. Avelo’s tasting menu wasn’t conducive to takeout, Yang says, but he was able to create job opportunities for staff by opening Pizzeria Du in April (which offers curbside pickup and delivery through a co-operative service, which he launched in May), and a line of vegan gelato, M!LK, which operates out of the same space as the plant-based pizzeria.

“Many restaurants have been doing various things. It’s interesting to see the creativity and the new things that are sprouting out of that. I’m trying to look at it from a positive point of view,” says Yang. “We weren’t planning to reopen our Queen St. location but pizza seemed like a really good idea during this time. It’s nice to provide comfort food, and it’s really nice to see the reactions from our customers. We’re hoping that we can make it work longer-term.”

In the meantime, he’s also been transitioning Avelo and what would have been Bar Avelo to facilitate physically distanced dining by installing eight-feet acrylic partitions to separate tables and HEPA air purifiers, and developing “server distancing” by video.

Avelo offers a five- to eight-course tasting menu, which prior to the pandemic, the server would have gone over with guests — explaining unusual techniques or unfamiliar ingredients. When Yang reopens the restaurant, he is planning for this communication to take place over video in order to minimize face time. “We’re going to find a way to do video serving so the only physical interaction between servers and guests would be dropping off items and picking them up,” says Yang.

Restaurants in Montreal were permitted to reopen their dining rooms on June 22, but some are choosing to hold back. Elena, where Tiefenbach heads the kitchen, decided to transition to takeout only when the pandemic hit and has no immediate plans to reopen the dining room. “We don’t want to find ourselves in a situation where we’re putting our staff or our clients at risk in any capacity,” says Tiefenbach. “At this time we don’t consider indoor dining to be safe.”

At Elena, the transition to takeout was a relatively seamless one. As the restaurant already had an established clientele for their takeout pizzas and salads, Tiefenbach says, they were tasked with scaling back their offering when they closed the dining room rather than changing the formula entirely. They built a small park area outside the restaurant outfitted with benches and a garden where guests can sit and eat their takeout meals.

One of the greatest struggles is to determine how to move forward, Tiefenbach says. In addition to the overarching safety concerns — ensuring staff get tested regularly and continuing to be vigilant — there’s the issue of being creatively curtailed. “We can maintain what we’re doing right now, but we want to keep things interesting for our customers. We want people to keep coming back and not lose interest in the business, so we need to continue innovating,” she says. “That’s definitely a challenge to do at this point because the risks are much greater when you want to try a new menu item.”

For people looking for ways to support their local restaurants in an ethical manner, Tiefenbach recommends eating on a terrasse, getting takeout, and buying merchandise or gift certificates: “Those are all totally safe options that you can do. Dining indoors is not on that list for me.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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