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The Feeling of Desperation Is Universal, but the Belief That It’s Time to Reopen Montreal Restaurants Isn’t

Without widespread vaccination, single-digit case numbers, and proper contact tracing, some say it’s just too risky

Dinette Triple Crown/Supplied

Over the course of the past month, parts of Ontario, Quebec, and elsewhere in the country have reanimated indoor dining operations. In Montreal, indoor pools, skating rinks, and movie theatres have made their grand return in time for spring break, but eating out is still a no-go. Nearly a year since the province first declared a state of emergency, many in the city’s restaurant community are eager to reprise their roles as the proprietors of and workers in gathering spaces, but there are a few who believe we just aren’t ready.

“If the provincial government opened up dining rooms in, say, a week’s time, and I was asked whether we’d be partaking, the answer would be a definitive no,” says Nicole Turcotte, co-owner of Mile-Ex’s lauded Southern restaurant Dinette Triple Crown. “The science has been proven in cities around the world, so we don’t need to test it for ourselves and put our workers in an unsafe environment that would not only be dangerous for them, but could have a massive knock-on effect causing us to just have to shut down again down the line.”

Routine handwringing from restaurant owners demanding Premier François Legault move forward with reopening their businesses, and a petition padded with more than 11,000 signatures by the Quebec Restaurant Associations (ARQ), pleading for the the same, suggest that Turcotte may be in the minority.

It is no surprise that many of Montreal’s food and beverage businesses have had enough. The provincial government has continuously lagged behind others when it comes to amending legislation to provide potentially business-saving relief for restaurants and bars by capping commission fees from delivery giants and allowing to-go cocktails. Its decision-making is considered opaque by some, and its aid meagre and difficult to access.

Turcotte understands the desperation; she feels it acutely, too. But rather than channel it into a hasty reopening of dining rooms, she thinks the industry could do better by uniting to apply pressure with an eye toward more robust financial support — not loans that merely offset the pain — from the province. (Though provincial support has been widely criticized by business owners, many of Montreal’s restaurant community seem appreciative of federal rent and wage subsidy schemes.)

“I completely understand people pushing to reopen. People are seeing their hard work and dreams just completely disappear into financial ruin. So am I,” Turcotte says. “But I think that we’re going about it the wrong way. Instead of pushing to reopen and potentially putting our staff in harm’s way, we should be pushing the government for meaningful aid.”

John Winter Russell, the chef-owner of Little Burgundy restaurant Candide, agrees that efforts to forge ahead with indoor dining in the foreseeable future are misplaced and potentially life-threatening. Like Turcotte, he expresses discomfort at the thought of doing so before reliable contact tracing and widespread virus inoculation are achieved — and case numbers are low, single-digits low.

With 737 more people having tested positive on Sunday, and 613 on Monday, the number of COVID-19 cases in Quebec is diminishing, but they still aren’t far off from where they were when Legault suggested indoor dining should close nearly six months ago. At last count, the province’s death toll is at 10,399.

“I don’t want to try and pretend that I’m an immunologist or a vaccine expert or anything. So what I can say is that before the pandemic, the chances of someone dying from working in a restaurant were pretty fucking close to zero. But right now, with risks mitigated, the chances are still very close to zero, but that doesn’t mean that they are zero, or that they are even so close to zero that it is negligible,” Winter Russell says. “And it also doesn’t mean that we can be certain we wouldn’t be participating in the propagation of the virus ourselves.”

There’s no denying that restaurants have, over the course of the past year, done their best to implement safety measures that dramatically limit the chance of virus-laden droplets spreading in their spaces. They’ve shouldered the costs of plexiglass and personal protective equipment and spent hundreds of hours deciphering government mandates and implementing them all while the future of their businesses hung in the balance. But, as long as community transmission remains in the high triple digits, vaccine rollout in the early stages, and continuous mask-wearing an all-out impossibility while dining, they, scientifically, cannot ensure total safety to their patrons or workers.

“I don’t want anyone here worrying that when they take off their mask to taste something in the kitchen, for example, they could be contaminating someone,” Winter Russell says. “And the reality is, we can’t physically do our jobs while keeping our masks on.” He points to stats published in a recent study by the University of California that shows that cooks, head chefs, bartenders, and bakers are the professions that carried the highest risk of COVID-19-related deaths in the state.

Should Legault decide to reopen dining rooms anytime soon — something that seems unlikely given his adamance about banning popcorn sales in movie theatres — Winter Russell says the decision would have to come down to a vote taken by the restaurant’s entire team. “It would need to come down to unanimous consent,” he says.

That type of open forum makes sense for Candide, where all employees are given a yearly salary, access to health insurance, and paid leave — i.e., workers won’t be putting themselves financially at risk should they oppose a reopening. But with the overwhelming majority of the city’s restaurants not offering such protections, a willingness to return to the front line may otherwise be guided by the precarious nature of their work, by a fear that they won’t be able to afford their rent, pay their bills, or feed their families if they don’t. (It’s the same reason why, in pre-pandemic times, a worker might opt to go into work even if they had the flu, and why organizations like the Canadian Workers Right Coalition are fighting for government-mandated sick days.)

masked restaurant employee Larrys/Supplied

Speaking to Keaton Ritchie, the general manager and wine director at Mile End sister restaurants Larrys and Lawrence, in early February, the day after it was announced that parts of Quebec would be downgraded to orange alert, thereby allowing for an easing of restrictions and the limited reopening of dining rooms, he said customers began broaching the topic of an imminent reopening in Montreal, too. It was a topic of conversation that had been forgotten for months. “It made it all feel real again, except unlike in the summer, there are now new, more transmissible variants,” Ritchie says.

More easily and quickly transmissible variants have become a major cause of concern in Montreal, where they now account for about 10 percent of the city’s COVID-19 tests. Combine that with the absence of any real plans to inoculate restaurant workers any time soon, and Ritchie says he feels his cohort is being overlooked.

“A lot of the conversations surrounding reopening focuses on the diners and not on the workers who are spending eight or 10 hours a day in those spaces,” says Ritchie. “Even with adhering to all the measures, I am still interacting with dozens of people in a day just by doing takeout, while the government is telling everyone to stay home and avoid all contact. It definitely feels like we are only essential to the people actually making these policies, so long as is it serves their purposes. We are essential when they want takeout to be available, but not when it’s time to talk about protecting us.”

Though the province’s vaccine rollout is finally gaining steam — roughly 700,000 doses are scheduled to arrive over the next month, 4.5 percent of the population is now inoculated, and Montrealers 70 and over are now eligible to book an appointment — many of the people the province has dubbed “essential” since the start of the pandemic don’t know when they’ll be able to get theirs. Though not explicitly listed, it seems that restaurant workers would fall one category above the 10th and final priority group: “the rest of the adult population.” Last week, a CTV News report suggested that the ninth category might soon be further segmented for teachers, grocery store cashiers, and other workers that were part of ongoing essential services during the first and second wave, but, again, restaurant workers weren’t named.

Unless the virus spontaneously mutates to be less deadly, or numbers get down to single digits and proper contact tracing is put in place, Turcotte says that there is “just no way” Dinette Triple Crown would reopen without a vaccine for her staff. In fact, she says it almost feels “absurd” to consider it in the context of previous workers rights wins in the province.

“I’ve been thinking back to when I was working at a Montreal bar and the law banning indoor smoking was passed. It was won from a workers’ rights point of view because it was deemed an unsafe environment for people to be in for eight or 10 hours a day,” Turcotte says. The argument back then, in 2006, was that workers might risk developing cancer 20 years down the line from second-hand smoke sustained while on the job, she explains. “Yet, right now, some people seem fine with their workers being in the the presence of an airborne virus that has led to immediate death on a huge portion of the population. When I think about that, it’s clear we’ve somehow lost perspective.”

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