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How Montreal’s Restaurant Scene is Responding to Quebec Lifting the Mask Mandate on April 15

The province is moving ahead with its plans to scrap mandatory masks, but how is its hospitality industry taking the news?

Shoppers On Saint-Catherine Street As Quebec Economy Bounces Back Getty Images

One month following restaurants’ return to full capacity, mask mandates in restaurants and bars indoors and outdoors will be lifted on April 15.

Quebec’s interim public health director Dr. Luc Boileau confirmed as much in a press conference on March 23, maintaining that the province will be moving forward with its planned date and no sooner, stating that masks would become a recommended measure and not a mandatory one.

After vaccine passports, masks have come to represent the last possible measure to be scrapped. For Montreal’s restaurateurs, it’s a largely welcome change, and in some cases one that couldn’t come soon enough.

“Personally, I’m excited for it to no longer be part of our work life,” says Michael Tozzi, an owner of the Old Montreal restaurant Dandy, who likens the size his small staff to a family bubble of sorts.

“I think people are ready to move on, until the next crisis anyway,” Tozzi adds. “I won’t name names, but I’ve been to two restaurants in the last two weeks where no staff at all were wearing masks.”

For nightlife venues like Farsides and Bord’Elle only minutes away from Dandy, the mask mandate could even be lifted a bit sooner. “The change is welcome. The downside is that they’re dragging it on for no reason at all, just to cause stress to our system,” says John Gumbley, president of Jegantic, the hospitality group which runs those two businesses.

“Currently, we still have to police clients in an unpoliceable climate,” Gumbley. “I’m happy it’s going away... Imagine having 500 people in your business and trying to constantly remind all of them to put their mask back on after taking a drink.”

“Two more weeks is not going to make a difference. It’s time, we want it,” says Ilene Polansky of the Plateau’s seafood restaurant Maestro SVP, noting that it’s been a point of exhaustion for staff and management alike.

It’s a sentiment also echoed by Michael Roman, CEO of Best Restaurant Group which runs restaurants in Montreal like H4C par Dany Bolduc and La Sobremesa in addition to restaurants in Toronto and Mont-Tremblant.

“It’s great news,” Roman says, who points out that his company’s locations in Toronto have already experienced a financial recovery since mandates were lifted in Ontario in late February. “The recovery to normalcy has been faster, and that’s been reflected in our sales. We’ve been growing week to week since (mandates were dropped).”

“I think people are ready to put this behind them.”

While enforcing the rules around masks has shown to be more than an inconvenience or a barrier to potential profits, it’s shown to be as much as a danger for other restaurateurs like Toby Lyle of Montreal’s Burgundy Lion Group.

“It’s been really difficult. It’s become aggressive, harder and harder to police this,” Lyle says. “There’s a staff safety issue coming from clients, reaching a point where it’s almost unfeasible to enforce (masks) after 10 p.m. on a weekend night.”

“We’ve left it up to staff; (after April 15) it will up be up to them if they want to wear one, and there won’t be any judgement either way,” Lyle said employees who choose to continue to wear masks.

CNESST, Quebec’s provincial labour authority, notes that “distancing measures [physical distancing, physical barriers or a quality mask] are recommended practices” as of mid-April.

While these restaurant owners and operators are generally looking forward to the removal of the mask mandate—if not feeling it could be dropped as soon as tomorrow—hospitality workers that Eater spoke to were not as enthusiastic.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one server said they’re not concerned about the government’s decision, but they’re not excited either.

“I myself just had COVID-19, got over it, and am back at work at my restaurant,” they explained. “I’m not particularly happy or afraid that the mandate is ending. I don’t mind wearing masks all too much. Overall, I think I’m just resigned and apathetic to whatever comes next.”

Another employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity, both a nursing student who is interning in an ICU and working at a bar simultaneously, believes the move is premature.

“I know a lot of the nurses I work with don’t understand (this decision) and think it’s insane. I disagree with the government on this, but I’m not surprised. Their approach has been either panicked or concerned for the economy,” they stated.

“On the other hand, as a server? As soon as the drinks start flowing, people don’t give a fuck (about wearing masks). Altogether, I’m not hung up about it, but I think it’s dumb; I try not to be too paranoid and keep my head on straight. I don’t know if this will get worse or better, but I can totally see another wave coming.”