While some Ottawa small businesses welcome the upcoming relaxation of provincial masking mandates as a sign that normalcy is returning, others remain worried that the politicization of pandemic mandates will persist and cause them problems.
On Wednesday morning, Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer of health, announced that as of March 21, Ontarians will no longer be required to wear masks in most indoor venues including schools, restaurants and gyms. In those settings, masking will be “a choice, not a mandate,” Moore said, while noting that masks would still be mandatory on public transit, in health-care and congregate-care settings, in shelters and jails.
“It’s joyous, joyous news,” said Richard Valente, the veteran restaurateur who owns Fratelli Kanata, Roberto Pizza on Preston Street and Angelina in Manotick.
Valente said from what he has seen at his three restaurants, “people are more than ready to come out and more than ready to have no masks.”
“I don’t want to be on any side of the political spectrum,” he added.
Mark Fernandez, owner of two Markie’s Montreal Smoked Meat locations in Ottawa, said he is excited about the end of mandatory masking.
“We miss all the smiles of our regular customers,” he said. “We miss the normal life.”
At the same time, Fernandez said about two-thirds of his customers are 40 and older, and they tend to favour mask-wearing. He said he was nervous he might lose their business because as mask adherents they might “be afraid” of non-masked people and stay home.
“It’s not harming anybody by wearing masks,” he added.
Fernandez said he will advise his staff to continue wearing masks in his business’s open kitchens as they assemble sandwiches and interact with customers.
“Even with no COVID, it’s safer,” Fernandez said. He acknowledged he would not force any of his staff to wear masks against their wishes.
The National Arts Centre will continue beyond March 21 to require masking for its visitors, as well as proof of vaccination, which has been optional since March 1, said Annabelle Cloutier, executive director of strategy and communications.
“We heard from a vast majority of our audience members who told us they would feel safer if these measures were maintained,” said Cloutier.
The requirements, which apply to those attending performances and guests at 1 Elgin, the NAC’s restaurant, will remain in place until further notice, she said.
Like other Ottawa restaurants that maintained proof-of-vaccination requirements this month, 1 Elgin has been hit by one-star Google reviews from foes of COVID-19 mandates. For example, one reviewer gave one-star reviews to not just 1 Elgin, but also the like-minded businesses Supply and Demand, Arlington Five and the Mayfair Theatre, while calling each of the businesses “segregationist.”
This kind of online backlash has prompted other restaurants to steer clear of discussions on masks and mandates.
“I don’t want to get embroiled in the mask bulls—,” said one Elgin Street restaurant owner, who feared reprisals because the climate has become so politically charged.
“There’s the camp that wants masks and the camp that can’t wait to get them off,” he said.
The restaurateur said he would allow staff to choose if they continued wearing masks, and he expected some would while others would not.
Caroline Murphy, chef and co-owner of Corner Peach in Chinatown, said she will probably wear a mask beyond March 21, as will some of her staff.
“It’s really unfortunate that the government has just dumped all the responsibility on us,” she said, asserting that restaurants have received very little communication or guidance on how to work through this and previous shifts in public health policy.
“We’re kind of taking it day by day as we have this whole pandemic, to see what else is going to happen,” Murphy said.
She said she had recently met with a few restaurateurs who were victims of online trolling. “They were bombarded by one-star reviews, terrible lies, just really, really awful bullying and harassment, completely unfounded things,” Murphy said.