Toronto restaurant makes push for red zone to have 'a fighting chance'

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As Toronto enters the grey-lockdown zone of the province's reopening framework on Monday and retail stores prepare to reopen for the first time in months, some businesses, including restaurants, will continue to have their doors closed.

It has prompted one Toronto owner to write an open letter to the province, asking Premier Doug Ford to allow restaurants and bars in the city to reopen for outdoor and indoor dining.

Regan Irvine, the owner of The Irv Gastro Pub in Cabbagetown, wrote in the letter that local restaurants could no longer solely rely on take-out and delivery service to survive.

"Move us to the red zone so that we have a fighting chance. Even 14 days in grey lockdown could mean the end of my business and many others," Irvine wrote.

He noted that restaurants could operate to a maximum capacity of 10 guests indoors, which is the limit in the red zone, and maintain public health guidelines. Irvine said the move is "a small ask when the stakes are so high to save our businesses."

@fordnation @epdevilla @JohnTory An open letter to the three of you in regards to the impact of Toronto and Peel only moving to grey zone and and not realizing that a move to red zone at minimum is required for restaurant survival #movetored pic.twitter.com/5835LZu5FL

— The Irv Gastro Pub (@theirvpub) March 3, 2021

Speaking to CP24 Sunday afternoon, Irvine said he published an open letter hoping that the premier and city officials read it and become aware of the dire situation he and many other restaurant owners are facing due to restrictions.

"It's just the support we've received from thousands of people and businesses over the last few days has been fantastic, and we appreciate it very much," he said.

Irvine wrote in the letter that he doesn't believe that government officials fully understand the hardships and challenges he endures.

"Until any of you experience the financial setbacks and struggles that us small business owners have suffered, you will truly never know the impact of your decisions."

Restaurants in the city have been closed for indoor dining since October. Meanwhile, outdoor dining was prohibited in late November.

The province announced on Friday that Toronto, Peel Region, and North Bay-Parry Sound are being added back to its colour-coded tiered framework for COVID-19 restrictions. Medical officers of health in the two GTA regions recommended the move to the grey zone, taking a cautious approach on reopening as they monitor the rising cases of COVID-19 variants.

Restrictions in the grey zone were adjusted to permit nonessential retail stores to open with 25 per cent capacity. Supermarkets, pharmacies and convenience stores will be allowed to operate at 50 per cent capacity.

Irvine wants the province also to modify the framework to allow restaurants and bars to operate. He noted in his letter that he is confused why food and drink establishments are being blamed for the spread of COVID-19 when there is limited data to prove that.

"We're heading into next week, which is going to be 10 C, 12 C, 13 C all week," he said. "Where's the adjustment for the restaurant and the bar business? You know, let us open the patio. We have heaters. I'm sure a lot of people would like to be outside with a beer."

Irvine said it has been depressing to look at their sales. In the letter, he shared that both his and his mother's life savings have been depleted to keep the pub afloat. Irvine is also a partner in Super Bargain Cocktail & Snack Bar.

While there are government assistance programs, he said those are not enough. Irvine said they have cashed in RRSPs, drained savings accounts, maxed out credit cards and maxed out lines of credit.

"My mom's been very instrumental in helping. She should be retiring soon, but is that going to happen? Probably not," Irvine said.

"There just needs something to be done."

Ginger Robertson, the co-owner of The Edmund Burke on The Danforth, said she is ecstatic for her retail neighbours, but she is disappointed that nothing changes for restaurants as they continue to depend on take-out and delivery.

"Watching your friends in the industry go under, it's devastating. Having to lay our staff off multiple times. We're lucky to get them back each time, but some people aren't so lucky," Robertson said in an interview with CP24.

"It's devastating to have that meeting with everybody. Not once, not twice, but three times that we're closing again. The insurmountable debt, you know, obviously keeps us up at night."

Robertson said there is a collective frustration that stems from the fact that it's been almost a year since the pandemic and the end is nowhere near.

"Until the vaccines are actually rolled out in an efficient by postal code manner – in hotspots where the problems exist – I don't see an end to this at all," she said.

Robertson, who also co-owns Off The Hook with her husband, added they are doing everything they can to survive, trusting that customers will be back when restaurants are permitted to reopen.

"The hope is that there's so much pent-up energy that when we do open, we're going to we're going to be okay because people are going to be out in droves like they were in the summer supporting us," she said.