Restaurants may never go back to ‘normal’ after COVID-19, experts say

Provinces like British Columbia, Alberta and New Brunswick have announced plans to re-open restaurants after closing them in mid-March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Owners are eager to open their doors to the public as the COVID-19 outbreak has caused massive profit losses in the restaurant industry. In fact, new data collected by Ipsos shows roughly 26 per cent of Canadian restaurants won’t have the funds to re-open.

In an effort to make restaurants as safe as possible, industry leaders are recommending various safety measures be implemented. Per instruction from the B.C. government, for example, “high-touch” areas will need to be frequently cleaned, and physical barriers like plexiglass will be advised to maintain physical distancing.

READ MORE: Canadian restaurants plan their reopenings as COVID-19 restrictions ease

However, some infectious disease experts worry about whether these precautions will be enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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“The challenge is that, while we know very well how SARS COV-2 can be transmitted, we have a very limited grasp of the most important routes of transmission in real life,” said Stan Houston, professor of medicine at the University of Alberta.

“We therefore have only relatively imprecise ideas of what works to prevent transmission.”

Alberta restaurants prepare for reopening after COVID-19 closures

Alberta restaurants prepare for reopening after COVID-19 closures

Colin Furness, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health in Toronto, is “definitely worried”.

“Anytime you have a lot of people indoors in the same room, you’ve got a heightened risk. No question,” he said.

Recommendations like masks for servers and plexiglass barriers between patrons are good ideas, but they can’t guarantee the virus won’t spread, said Furness.

READ MORE: Half of Canada’s independent restaurants could close without help, industry group warns

“It’s probabilistic. By the time that plate makes its way to your table, it’s been handled by a few people,” he said.

Furness worries about all the uncontrollable variables that exist in a restaurant setting.

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“There’s one author who said (going) to a restaurant to eat is like having unprotected sex with someone you’ve never met,” he said. “It’s a pretty intimate relationship.”

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Calgary shops, restaurants get to expand patios to allow for more social distancing during COVID-19 pandemic

Calgary shops, restaurants get to expand patios to allow for more social distancing during COVID-19 pandemic

The good news: patios should be relatively safe.

“The easy part of the answer is that, if you’re outdoors, you’re fine — at least if you follow basic guidelines of physical distancing and identifying objects which might be shared and enable transmission,” Houston said.

“So patios, go for it. I wouldn’t hesitate to eat there.”

READ MORE: 800,000 restaurant jobs lost in Canada in March amid COVID-19: survey

When it comes to re-opening indoor spaces, it’s likely that a reduced number of patrons will be necessary to maintain physical distancing. But even then, it will be an “experiment”, Houston said.

“Based on our experience to date in commercial settings that have been deemed essential and remained open, the risk is probably pretty small, but this is definitely an experiment,” he said.

“We’ll have to observe the results carefully.”

B.C. bars, pubs and restaurants need help to survive limited reopening

B.C. bars, pubs and restaurants need help to survive limited reopening

There will be other questions about the efficacy of various measures: should servers be required to wear masks? Could sharing cutlery transmit the virus?

Unfortunately, said Houston, experts just don’t have answers at this time.

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“I have more questions than answers, which I think accurately reflects our state of knowledge,” he said.

READ MORE: Saint John explores closing streets, expanded restaurant patios as COVID-19 restrictions ease

From offering N95 masks to making hand sanitizer readily available, Furness said restaurant workers need the same level of protection as health-care workers before restaurants can be considered safe.

“We almost have to turn restaurant staff into health-care workers … for the (right) kind of protection,” he said.

Regional differences

Furness urges customers to consider the infection rate in their community before deciding whether or not to eat at a restaurant in the coming weeks and months.

“I would base my life decisions … on the levels of community spread (where I live),” he said.

“If there’s very little community spread, I would go to restaurants. If I think there’s a lot of community spread, I wouldn’t.”

It matters less what precautions an individual restaurant is taking, Furness said, and more how the virus is spreading in different communities.

“Downtown Toronto is not the same thing as Thunder Bay,” Furness said.

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“In regions that have very little community spread, my calculus would be really different.”

Protecting workers

Furness is most worried about people who work in restaurants.

“Your risk of getting sick is directly proportional to the amount of time that you spend exposed,” Furness said.

“(Patrons) are there for an hour; servers are there for an entire shift, and they’re coming into close contact with far more people.

“The risk to restaurant staff would be many times greater than the customers.”

READ MORE: B.C. sets mid-May target to reopen restaurants with coronavirus precautions

This is primarily a “workers’ rights issue,” Houston said.

“Hourly, minimum wage workers are understandably desperately keen to have some income, but they are clearly the people at greatest risk of these uncertain hazards,” he said.

What protection do they have about declining an offer to work in these settings, given the uncertainty?”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

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To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

— With files from Global News’ Simon Little & the Canadian Press

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