On Saturday, March 12, Quebec is jettisoning the bulk of its coronavirus health measures. For restaurants and bars, that means an end to capacity limits, dance and karaoke bans, reduced operating hours, and, yes, abolishing the rule that says anyone entering these establishments must be doubly vaccinated. The reversal comes roughly 11 weeks after a deadly surge of the omicron variant that sparked a wave of voluntary closures among Montreal restaurants, and on the heels of reports earlier this week that COVID patients in hospitals still accounted for more than twice as many as they did a year ago. But premier François Legault, like many leaders around the world, says the time has come “to learn to live” with COVID-19.
To some, like Rachel Greenwood, a server at a restaurant in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood, the province’s decision seems “reductive,” “short-sighted,” and even “irresponsible.” The thought of scraping a measure that’s put public-facing workers — and diners — at ease for months fills her with dread. She says after Quebec’s vaccine passport mandate came into effect on September 1, 2021, a new cohort of diners — made up of people who’d until then abstained from eating out in fear of getting infected or spreading COVID-19 — returned to the scene assuaged by the extra layer of security. “There were a lot of people, a lot of elder couples, who were so happy about the vaccine passport. They said they were only coming because of it, because indoor dining suddenly felt more safe,” Greenwood says.
Camille Desmarais-Plouffe, a server at another restaurant, in La Petite-Patrie, says that in the early days of the vaccine passport’s six-month existence, the regulation seemed like an antidote to some of the issues facing restaurants during the pandemic. “I just wanted things to keep on moving. If that’s what was needed for people to be inside together and feel safe about it and have a good time and eat good food... As a person in the service industry, that’s all I wanted. So yes, I was totally for it,” she says.
But now, Desmarais-Plouffe says she’s come to feel “pretty neutral” about the measure, and welcomed the news of its end with relief. She’s fed up with all the anger and frustration that the pandemic has spawned, and thinks Quebec’s high vaccination rates — 91 percent of the eligible population (ages 5 and up) have received one dose, while 87 percent have received two — carry their own assurance.
A third Montreal restaurant worker who was recently let go, and who requested anonymity due to retaliation concerns, says the news was anxiety-inducing — especially because they allege their former employer has been lax about taking certain COVID-19 precautions. This worker has a chronic illness, and claims to have repeatedly expressed concerns to management about mask-wearing among staff and clients. In response, they claim they were told they were making a big deal out of nothing. “I was terrified about the reopening of the dining room to non-vaccinated people because [my employers] already weren’t trying their best to protect us,” the worker says.
Now that Quebec has also announced the end of mandatory masking in public spaces by mid-April, the worker says they’re worried cases will spike again. “I’ll be staying in from here on out, and if I do leave, I’ll be wearing two masks,” they said in a follow-up email.
At least one Montreal-area restaurateur, Eric Luksenberg, has gone on record saying he’ll continue voluntarily checking vaccine passports to protect his staff, and to protect a clientele that’s largely made up of seniors. But Luksenberg, of Brossard restaurant Chez Éric, tells CBC that since announcing his plans, his restaurant has been flooded with one-star reviews — a gamble that may be deterring other like-minded business owners from announcing the same. (In New York, where the vaccine mandate was dropped on March 7, a mob of anti-vaxxers crashed a restaurant that decided to continue requiring customers to show proof of vaccination.)
Greenwood, from the Mile End restaurant, says such decisions taken in the absence of government backing, though commendable, may present future obstacles for workers. “It was already hard to get some people to show you their passport, like pulling teeth. Now, imagine having to say, ‘We’ve implemented our own thing.’ That’s just going to result in verbal abuse that the staff will have to take. At least before we could always say, ‘If you want to be mad, be mad at the government.’”
Overall, Greenwood says, passport checks rarely escalated for her, though she recounts one incident at her workplace where someone threw a bottle of hand sanitizer at a busser, and spat on them through an open window. Otherwise, Greenwood found the added step in service at times cumbersome and annoying, but would remind herself that “it was just a small sacrifice for the safety of our customers and our staff.”
Personally, she’s worried about catching the virus for a third time, given that she’s still reeling from long COVID; her symptoms include chronic fatigue and the loss of taste and smell, which she says worsened with the second bout. On a larger scale, she’s concerned that peeling back measures too soon could open the gate to newer, stronger variants, further strains on the healthcare system, and the return of more stringent health measures, like dining room closures.
That’s something no one wants. But for many restaurant workers, it’s also something many can’t financially sustain — again. At the end of February, Desmarais-Plouffe, from the Petite-Patrie restaurant, still hadn’t received her employment insurance for the weeks she was out of work during the latest round of shutdowns. She says the same is true for a number of her co-workers and friends. Luckily, she says, she was able to access funds from a grassroots organization, the Montreal Restaurant Workers Relief Fund, which helped tide her over. “I got 300 bucks, and with that I was able to buy a bunch of groceries, which was really great,” she says.
Looking ahead, Desmarais-Plouffe says she just hopes restaurants don’t get stuck in another exasperating feedback loop of openings and closings. “It’s annoying to always be like, ‘Are we going to close? Am I going to lose my job again?’ I don’t want to quit my job because I love it, but a lot of people had to because of that,” Desmarais-Plouffe says.
Meanwhile, Greenwood says she’s trying to hold on to whatever modicum of optimism she can, but is mostly just nervous about this new era in pandemic dining. “It’s going to present a whole new set of challenges that we’ll have to navigate on an individual basis,” she says. “It’ll be up to restaurants on how to handle things. It’ll be up to the servers, up to the bartenders, and up to the workers.”