Durham Region restaurants adapting to COVID-19 restrictions

Durham Region Assistant Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Pepi McTavish. Photo credit: Photo Courtesy of Durham Region Health Department

Restaurants in Durham Region have struggled during the pandemic, but the new COVID-19 Response Framework introduced by the Ontario government Nov. 3 will allow them to stay open – and possibly survive the winter.

The new system allows restaurants to stay open throughout all of the new green-to-red coloured stages with green being the same as Stage 3, and red being about the same as a modified Stage 2 from the previous plan.

Durham Region has been placed in the “Yellow – Protect” stage of the framework, which allows indoor dining. Under the old staged restrictions, restaurants would’ve been closed for 28 days in “modified stage two”, which Toronto, Ottawa, and Peel were under.

“The red, orange, yellow, green levels does help out businesses quite a bit,” said Ashley Bain, business development manager at the Greater Oshawa Chamber of Commerce (GOCC).

Nancy Shaw, CEO of the GOCC, said restaurants in the region struggled with initial restrictions around COVID-19.

“There were some restaurants that had no takeout, so they had zero income coming into the restaurants,” said Shaw.

Shaw said she’s dined indoors at restaurants since the pandemic hit and felt “pretty comfortable” but understands why someone wouldn’t, especially if they’re immunocompromised.

Durham Region mayors worked with restaurants to open up patios to make indoor dining safer, but with winter coming up, Whitby mayor Don Mitchell said some restaurants are concerned about moving back indoors.

“Even doing takeout and having the patio, as they’ve had over the summer, it’s still a real struggle to make ends meet for them,” said Mitchell.

Other restaurants, like Baxters Landing in Oshawa and Hot Rocks Creative Diner in Whitby, are planning on installing heat lamps on their patios to continue to operate the outdoor spaces throughout the winter, in addition to indoor dining, according to Bain.

“Who knows? Maybe they might say bring your own blanket along as well,” said Shaw. “Wrap it around your legs, wear your parka and come for dinner! I think everyone is trying to think outside of the box and be creative.”

Before the new restrictions, restaurants in Whitby were taking names and numbers in to conduct contact tracing, which is done by the Durham Region Health Department, according to Mitchell. (Under the new COVID-19 Response Framework, all restaurants in the region will be required to take contact information from every member of the dining party.)

“There are new outbreaks, but they’re not being traced back to any of these local businesses, certainly not in Whitby anyway,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell points to private parties as a source of most of the cases in the region. According to the Health Department’s COVID-19 Data Tracker, 39 per cent of the cases in Durham in the last month are through household infection.

“There’s just no benefit to closing down the restaurants,” said Mitchell. “It doesn’t look like anything that would impact the new cases.”

The Durham Region Health Department does not report cases in workplaces and restaurants unless there is a “risk to the community,” said Dr. Pepi McTavish, the region’s assistant medical officer of health.

“Let’s say there’s a workplace outbreak, and they don’t have much interaction with the public, but someone there gets sick with COVID, and another person gets sick, and another person gets sick. We will investigate that workplace, we will call it an outbreak, but we don’t disclose that to the public because there’s no risk of exposure to COVID-19,” said Dr. McTavish.

But Dr. McTavish said if the health department was investigating a workplace outbreak with exposure to the public, if they were unable to get a hold of people through contact tracing, they would disclose it to the public to make sure anyone exposed to the virus would get tested quickly.

“We don’t release all workplace, restaurant, gym information. It can be quite stigmatizing to facilities because it doesn’t mean they aren’t abiding by all the health codes and regulations, sometimes outbreaks just happen and sometimes they happen unrelated to the workplace,” said Dr. McTavish. “For example, carpools, or a husband and wife who work at the same facility, but really they got (COVID-19) at home.”

With winter dining on the patios looking like it’s coming to the Durham Region, Dr. McTavish suggests Durham Region residents “continue to do what they’ve shown us they can do,” and follow COVID-19 guidelines of wearing masks, physical distancing and not going out while sick.

And if you’re not cut out for the winter patios, Mitchell suggests supporting local restaurants with takeout once a week.

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