Please just let restaurants have their patios

OPINION: Restaurants are still in crisis. When public-health officials say it’s safe, make it easy for them to serve food outside
By Corey Mintz - Published on May 26, 2021
Last year, Toronto let restaurants set up dining areas on streets and sidewalks without much interference. (Rachel Verbin/CP)

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Can we just be cool about patios, like we were last year?

For a moment, let’s put aside the science of outdoor COVID-19 transmission and whether it’s safe to serve diners this way — because, inevitably, Ontario will allow restaurants to operate patios again, at least in some capacity. And hopefully before the end of Canada’s painfully short patio season.

So can we please continue the attitude and unofficial policy of 2020, which saw cities and bylaw officers turn a blind eye to patio-licensing enforcement?

Because I don’t like what I’m hearing from restaurateurs: that obstructionist bureaucracy has returned.

David Neinstein, who owns Barque restaurant in Toronto, says his 2021 patio application has been denied by CaféTO (the city program that administers rules for outdoor dining). Four other restaurants have also been turned down in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood, where he is the chair of the business-improvement area. 

“Given the challenges we've experienced this year, the lack of support really hurts, and our businesses feel very vulnerable and unsupported,” he says.

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 The application process is very different from last year, when Toronto, like cities all over North America, let restaurants set up dining areas on streets and sidewalks and in laneways and parking lots without much interference. Stephen Murphy, a real-estate agent specializing in restaurants, describes 2020 as “the Wild West.” Many owners didn’t even bother with the paperwork. One restaurant, he says, simply placed dining tables in a small park next door and didn’t hear any objections.

We did this last year because restaurants were in a crisis. The pandemic was still new. Our understanding of how the virus was transmitted was still evolving, and government aid for small businesses was still being announced and adjusted. In “normal” times, there are lots of good reasons for the web of rules governing patios. But in a moment when everyone’s favourite neighbourhood restaurant was in danger of closing forever if they couldn’t generate some revenue, we were willing to let them bend the rules. Ontario, a notoriously controlled alcohol market, even relaxed restrictions that had prohibited restaurants from selling wine and cocktails with takeout and delivery. These measures were essential to their survival.

That crisis has not ended. Yes, we have vaccines, and the rate of vaccinated Ontarians is climbing up. Thanks to government action (federal subsidies for wages and rent), a lot of restaurants are still in business. But that assistance is scheduled to taper off and end, and the businesses are nowhere near ready to walk on their own two feet again. They are still getting by on takeout, delivery, meal kits, and whatever else they pivoted to over the past year. Between office employees still working remotely and no plan for a resumption of dine-in service, restaurants will be hampered for the foreseeable future. 

Meanwhile, we had a calamitous in-between period. Remember back in March, when Ontario told these restaurateurs that they could open? Owners rehired staff, ordered product, spent time on training and reconfiguring their dining areas, all at great cost, only to have the plug pulled within two weeks.

Now, it looks as if warm weather will arrive before restaurateurs have any roadmap for a resumption of service. Worse, they’ve been burned by the Ontario government, so it’s harder to invest in reopening when they can’t trust that the same thing won’t happen again.

Long-term, restaurateurs have requests much bigger than patio licences. They’d like to see regulation for the third-party-delivery industry, which has preyed on restaurants at a time when they depended on delivery sales. They want wholesale pricing for alcohol and mental-health support for workers. I’ve heard calls for a federal agency for hospitality. Why not? We have departments, agencies, and Crown corporations for fishing, film production, heritage, defence, and so on (we once had a Metric Commission). It seems reasonable to have someone in Ottawa overseeing an industry that employs 1.2 million Canadians and that, pre-pandemic, generated $90 billion a year — 5 per cent of our GDP. I’d argue we also need a commitment to labour enforcement: a system for inspections not based on complaints filed by vulnerable workers.

All these ideas face hurdles of cost and political opposition. Letting restaurants have their patios is low-hanging fruit. When public-health officials deem it safe to do so, just let restaurants serve food outside. In 2022, Ontario can revert to its anti-fun persona. For this summer at least, stop asking for blueprints and letters from the neighbours. Please make life as easy as possible for restaurateurs. They are hanging by a thread, and they do not have the time, patience, or money for more bureaucracy.

Leave the paperwork for next year. We are still in this fight.

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