Skip to main content

Boreal Community Media

Thunder Bay businesses respond to COVID-19 capacity limits with frustration, acceptance

Dec 20, 2021 07:33AM ● By Editor
Bianca Garofalo owns and manages Bight, El Tres and Giorg restaurants in Thunder Bay. She's calling for more supports for businesses in light of the new COVID-19 restrictions. Photo: Bianca Garofalo

From CBC News · Thunder Bay - December 20, 2021 

As new COVID-19 restrictions and capacity limits came into effect Sunday in Thunder Bay, Ont., several local business owners say they're frustrated by the rules, and are looking for more help from the government.

Restaurant owners in particular say they're feeling the effects of the latest rules, and are left scrambling to comply with the changes just as the busy holiday period begins.

"We were just starting to recover coming out of the last set of restrictions that were lifted at the very end of October," said Bianca Garofalo, who owns three restaurants in the city.

"Going into the Christmas season, which is one of our busiest times, it seemed like it was going to be a hopeful time for some additional revenue and some recovery after the last two years."

Instead, Garofalo says she's had to cancel larger events, and people are cancelling other reservations.

The provincial restrictions come among rapidly escalating COVID-19 case numbers, fears about the new Omicron variant, and expanded efforts to get third doses of vaccines into the arms of Ontarians.

As of 12:01 a.m. ET Sunday, capacity limits were reduced to 50 per cent for a range of businesses, including restaurants, malls and retailers, personal care services, gyms and pharmacies. Indoor social gathering limits are reduced from 25 people to 10, and outdoor gatherings from 100 people to 25.

Businesses must post a sign indicating their capacity limits. Restaurants must also limit seating to 10 people per table and close by 11 p.m., with the exception of takeout and delivery. Alcohol sales are restricted after 10 p.m.

You can read the province's release about the full suite of new rules here.

Rama Agarwal, the owner of Masala Grille, said she understands the need for new restrictions.

"We just have to accept it and stay positive and have faith," Agarwal told CBC News. "We were so close before and now we're going to overcome this again."

The owner of Masala Grille, Rama Agarwal, said they'll have to rethink their plans for holiday events and meals given the new COVID-19 restrictions. Photo: Masala Grille/Facebook

Still, the new restrictions are causing the Agarwals to rethink their plans for the holiday season to accommodate the limited capacity for in-person dining.

Meanwhile, My-Tien Nguyen, a manager at Chinese Express, said the restaurant has been forced to further delay its plans to re-open the dining room. The restaurant has only been offering takeout and delivery options since the pandemic began.

"We kind of put off [re-opening the dining room] for a while just because the restrictions are always changing and they're not really consistent," Nguyen said. "It's hard, because we do miss seeing our customers in store."

Some expecting a Christmas 'in the red'

It's not just capacity restrictions that will harm businesses, said Jason Pearce, one of the owners of the Madhouse restaurant. Early closure at 11 a.m. and restricting alcohol sales after 10 p.m. is a bigger challenge.

"We followed the rules through this whole process, so the idea that we can't follow them after 11 seems absurd," he said.

Pearce said revenue will likely be cut in half, meaning he will probably be "on the negative side in the red" come Christmas time.

"It's like the goalposts are endlessly moving … when you've done what has been asked of you, and yet the rules seem to change all the time, it's very difficult."

The expected loss in revenue also has some businesses calling for more government support.

"The restaurant industry has a very low profit margin … and many restaurateurs have acquired new debt through the pandemic, so people are way further behind than they were two or three years ago," said Bianca Garofalo. "The subsidies, they kept us open."

She said she wants to see the return of two key support programs — the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which ended on Oct. 23.

"I don't really think they're going to be able to assure us one way or another when this will end, and I understand that, but at least assure us that there's help," Garofalo said.

The federal government introduced two new programs targeted to certain businesses — the Tourism and Hospitality Recovery Program and the Hardest-Hit Business Recovery Program — both of which will run until May 2022.

Other businesses also affected by capacity limits

Ron Rost said he was disappointed to hear about the next round of restrictions.

"I was kind of taken aback about how fast it happened, without any warning," said the owner of Superior Crossfit. "It's made it very difficult."

For Tony Muia, the owner of Serenity Salon and Wellness, it's the rapid change in restrictions that is most frustrating. As a personal care service provider, Muia said they'll have to cut back on certain services, which will certainly affect their bottom line.

Tony Muia is the owner of Serenity Salon and Wellness in Thunder Bay. He says it's hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when COVID-19 restrictions continue to change. Photo: Submitted by Tony Muia

But Muia said he's also hearing a lot of disappointment and confusion from his clients about the restrictions, especially given the high rates of vaccination in Thunder Bay and other parts of the province.

"If we want the light to be on at the end of the tunnel, this is a pretty cut-and-dry answer. If you're vaccinated, you get to go into businesses," Muia told CBC News. "If you're not vaccinated, you don't have any of those privileges."

While there is a range of feelings about the newest round of COVID-19 restrictions, a couple questions loom large in the minds of many business owners.

For how long will the new rules be in effect? And how much stricter will they get?

To see the original report and read related stories, follow this link to the CBC Thunder Bay website.