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Check IDs or trust the customers? Toronto restaurants struggling to enforce one-household dining rule

Ontario tweaked its rules to allow restaurants to open outdoor dining areas
March 30, 2021

Toronto's restaurant industry says it needs additional guidance and resources to ensure that guests are following Ontario's latest COVID-19 regulations, which stipulate that people dining outdoors must live in the same household.

That rule applies in the "grey" lockdown zone of the provincial reopening plan, which is in effect in Toronto and Peel Region.

Ontario tweaked its lockdown rules earlier this month to allow restaurants to open outdoor dining areas.

But the business owners and workers tasked with enforcing those restrictions say it isn't clear how they are supposed to ensure guests are following the one-household rule.

"There was no hint on how we should be policing this," said Bridgitte De Man, a server at Union Restaurant on Ossington Avenue.

Union Restaurant created a contact tracing form that guests are required to sign before dining, rather than a policy to ask guests for identification. De Man said the restaurant devised the system without any advice from the city or province.

"It felt like we were hung out to dry a little bit," she said.

Carleton Grant, the City of Toronto's executive director of Municipal Licensing and Standards, said during a Monday news conference that it is "Incumbent upon people attending these establishments" to follow the one-household rule.

However, it is businesses hosting those guests that are liable to be fined in the event of a violation. According to a email statement from Toronto Public Health (TPH) in response to questions from CBC Toronto, those fines range from $880 for individuals to $1,130 for corporations, if TPH inspectors find that eateries aren't complying.

If an individual or corporation is charged under Part 3 of the Provincial Offences Act, the statement says, the penalties for non-compliance get much steeper upon a guilty verdict in court: a fine of up to $100,000 and possibly a jail term of not more than one year for individuals, and up to $10 million in fines for corporations.  

But TPH also says it's up to restaurants to figure out how to enforce the rules.

"TPH cannot and does not offer advice to patio operators as to how it is to meet its obligations under the relevant laws," the statement reads.

"A business with questions as to how to best ensure compliance must seek its own legal advice. TPH does expect that operators implement appropriate measures to ensure compliance."

Are people breaking the rules?
Jamal Severin-Watson, the owner of Loveless Cafe, said guests have been devising ways to skirt the one-household rule at various points throughout the pandemic when restaurants have been allowed to host guests.

He suspects that people sometimes lie about being roommates, or arrive at separate times to give their rendezvous the appearance of a spontaneous encounter.

"Then it gets to the point where it's me going out there and basically telling them they can't dine there," Severin-Watson said. "And that's what we've been doing for the last year."

Severin-Watson said his local business improvement area advised him to ask customers for ID before reopening, though the city has said that is not necessary.

A spokesperson for the industry group Restaurants Canada said he believes that customers have generally been following COVID-19 regulations, though some "creepage" has started in regions like Toronto where rules have been recently loosened.

"It's human nature; we expect some people to try to cheat," said James Rilett, Restaurant Canada's vice president for central Canada.

"Our only concern is that we don't want the servers, et cetera, to be responsible for policing that."

Rilett said Ontario could help business owners by creating a more detailed form that all restaurants and businesses could use when checking in their customers.

COVID-19 cases rising among younger residents
Toronto Mayor John Tory said it is reasonable to expect business owners to question guests who don't appear to be from the same household, though he acknowledged that can sometimes be difficult to gauge.

"An eyeball test would often, though not always, tell you that certain groups of people are unlikely to live with each other," Tory said on Monday.

He then expressed disappointment that case rates among younger residents account for a growing proportion of COVID-19 cases.
People aged 20 to 29 account for 21 per cent of the city's cases, while people aged 30 to 39 account for 17.1 per cent, the two highest figures for any age bracket.

"There has to be a degree of good faith on the part of people here who want to defeat this virus," Tory said.

De Man offered a contrasting opinion, and said many customers are unaware that they can't dine with people outside their household. She said the municipal and provincial government should have a greater responsibility to provide clear directions for people to follow.

"I don't think a lot of people want to go into a restaurant and put a restaurant they love to go to at risk," De Man said.

"People just aren't aware."