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I feel sorry for restaurant owners. Even before governments imposed lockdown measures that violate our Charter freedoms to move, associate and assemble, many restaurants were already half-empty. People had already become very fearful, due to the then-circulating predictions about huge numbers of COVID-19 deaths, predictions we now know to be wildly inaccurate.
I had lunch with a friend on March 24 at Pho Phuong Vietnamese Cuisine near my office. I guessed that the owners were paying about $4,000 per month for rent alone, and told my friend that they could not survive without a decent number of paying customers. On my way out of this nearly empty restaurant, I asked the manager about his monthly rent costs. He told me $8,000.
I plan to eat at Pho Phuong again when the Alberta Government allows it to re-open on Tuesday May 25, but I fear it will be bankrupt and closed permanently.
Governments are now adding insult to injury. Having been deprived of the ability to earn a livelihood, restaurant owners will be subjected to ridiculous "relaunch" regulations that will do little if anything to reduce the spread of a virus which, at time of writing, has claimed the lives of 121 Albertans. This after the Alberta Government warned on April 8, after lockdown measures had already been in place for weeks, that as many as 32,000 Albertans could die of COVID-19, even with the lockdown.
Alberta’s new regulations allow diners at restaurants to sit together at the same table, even if they are not from the same household.
Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, has told us every day for the past nine weeks that social distancing was—and still is—vitally important in churches, grocery stores, and even wide-open outdoor spaces. Unlike restaurant patrons, church-goers who are not of the same household must maintain a six-foot distance "at all times," no exceptions. But when six restaurant patrons from six different families enjoy lunch at the same table, seated a foot or two from each other, that is just fine. Where is the science? What happened to "evidence-based" public policy?
Alberta’s restaurants, cafes, pubs and bars can re-open May 25, but cannot exceed 50 percent capacity. But if one table can seat six people from six different households anyways, why not allow 100 percent capacity?
Restaurants are asked to arrange tables and chairs so that a two-metre distance is maintained between each dining party, but there is no requirement that members of one dining party live together. So what is the point of a two-metre separation between tables? How is this rational?
The government’s new rules for restaurants have little to do with safety, and are utterly devoid of common sense.
For example, the government recommends that restaurants "heighten barriers between adjoined booths." This would only be useful if a restaurant patron seated at a booth stood up and then started coughing vigorously without covering his mouth, thereby projecting germs across not only his own booth, but also over and into the next booth that is six feet away. Otherwise, the existing (non-heightened) barriers between booths would already guarantee that if you were seated, and if you coughed without covering your mouth, your germs would only contaminate those seated with you at the same table.
Perhaps the "heightened barriers between adjoining booths" will somehow encourage people to cover their mouths when they cough? If not, it’s a useless expense that burdens restaurant owners who are already financially crippled by having to pay rent for two months without receiving money from paying customers during that time.
Restaurants are asked to "remove table condiments and other frequently touched items" like salt and pepper shakers, ketchup, and hot sauce. But waiters are presumably allowed to bring these same items to tables, when waiters are touching the plates, cups, glasses, knives, forks, spoons and napkins that were touched by so many other customers at so many other tables. Not to worry: those other tables are six feet away; surely that space between tables prevents germs from moving from the used plates and cutlery on to the waiter’s hands. Right? Or perhaps waiters should now wash their hands very thoroughly once every 2-3 minutes, to "help reduce the spread"?
Could we solve the problem of dirty hot sauce bottles by having waiters deliver McDonalds-style packages of salt, pepper and hot sauce? I’m sure that Hy's Steak House and Auberge du Pommier would enjoy adapting to this down-home folksy touch, but it still doesn’t solve the problem of the waiter touching these packages.
In fact, how are waiters supposed to respect Dr. Hinshaw’s beloved social distancing rules (six feet!) when bringing food to tables? Perhaps waiters should toss the food-filled plates across a six-foot distance and hope that it lands on the table, and in front of the right customer. (We don’t want patrons passing plates to each other, if the plate with salmon lands in front of the customer who ordered chicken.) The dry-cleaning problems resulting from plate-throwing can be readily solved by having customers sign a waiver when they enter the restaurant.
Perhaps Greek restaurants could adapt more easily to this new problem of flying plates that land on the floor and break before reaching the table. But even for these establishments, it would be a big change because pre-lockdown the plates were only broken when empty, after the meal.
But seriously, couldn’t the restaurant just hire a busboy to clear tables, and spare the waiters the deadly risk of handling used plates and cutlery? Perhaps Bonterra Trattoria and Ruth’s Chris Steak House could afford this, but not Pho Phuong. Pre-lockdown, many restaurants were already forced to reduce staff to accommodate the $15/hour minimum wage.
Social distancing doesn't apply to individuals seated at the same table, or to waiters delivering food, or to kitchen staff preparing meals. This suggests that social distancing is rather useless, or that COVID-19 isn't nearly as harmful as governments said it was.
The actual COVID-19 death statistics published by Canadian provinces and by countries around the world show that politicians were (sincerely and unwittingly, I hope) engaging in fearmongering in March and April. The global COVID-19 death toll of 311,000 as of May 16 is well within the range of an annual flu season. The flu is estimated to kill between 291,000 and 646,000 people every year.
Another brilliant Alberta government tip is to "control access to the dining area, by asking guests to wait to be seated." As if restaurants were not already doing that before the government shut them down. The government now also tells restaurants to "encourage table reservations to prevent lineups." That, too, was already happening pre-lockdown.
Next restaurants are told to "ensure that customers have space to maintain physical distancing in waiting areas." Okay, but once inside they can sit together closely at the same table, so what is the point? Further, if the waiting area is too small or non-existent, bars and cafes cannot afford to spend thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars on creating new waiting areas, or enlarging existing ones. Not to worry, the government has an alternative plan: "ask guests to wait outside until their table is ready, and use technology to provide notice that a table is ready." I'm sure that grandma won’t mind waiting outside in January, but what if she doesn’t know how to use a smart phone?
It appears that restaurants' new waiting areas will need to be so large that they can "demarcate floors with physical distancing markers in areas where line-ups occur," another government request. There won’t be line-ups anyways; the government has banned buffets.
Banning buffets will hurt many wonderful restaurants that depend on lunch crowds who don't have time to order from a menu, or who love the diversity of a buffet. Following the government's logic, menus can be wiped down and disinfected, but apparently buffet serving spoons cannot. Banning buffets also presupposes that people will be coughing on the food, but if this was a common practice or truly a life-threatening problem or both, governments would have banned buffets a long time ago. Again, the hard data on COVID-19 deaths, as now reported by government authorities across the globe, exposes the politicians’ previous death claims as demonstrably false.
"Washroom capacity must allow for distancing between guests." So the walls between stalls are not good enough to prevent the virus from spreading? Or does this refer to sinks, such that restaurants, swimming in money as they are, must now spend thousands to re-build sinks so the sinks will be six feet apart? There are very few pubs and cafes with washrooms big enough to stay six feet away from others. Correcting this "problem" would cost tens of thousands of dollars, which bars and restaurants simply don’t have.
The government asks restaurants to "consider closing alternate urinals." Does this mean you risk spreading the virus by urinating? Or while urinating? Where is the science behind that? Besides, closing alternate urinals would create a distance of only three feet between the guys, failing to meet Dr. Hinshaw’s high standard of six feet for social distancing.
How about we all just refrain from coughing on each other while peeing? I've never been coughed on in a men's washroom.
As using bathrooms is a very complicated matter, which most Albertans apparently cannot manage on their own, the government also suggests to restaurants that washroom "supervision" should be "enhanced." Yes, the maitre d' can remind the guys not to cough on each other while using alternate urinals that are only three feet apart. I'm sure he can count on a big tip.
Next the government asks restaurants to "encourage guests to wash their hands." No doubt the maitre d' will cheerfully add this to his responsibilities, and treat patrons like small children.
Restaurants should "post COVID-19 signage throughout the facility" in order to "maintain awareness." This is a great way to enhance the ambiance at River Café, Deane House and La Ronde, many of whose patrons will never have heard of COVID-19 before entering these elegant establishments. Patrons will appreciate the education, and will be filled with gratitude towards their Premier.
It's tragic how the government really views Albertans: as reckless imbeciles. Dr. Hinshaw believes that we need to erect high barriers between booths, and close every second urinal, because we're too rude or too stupid to refrain from coughing on each other.
Premier Kenney must think that we are smart enough to read these utterly unscientific guidelines, yet not quite smart enough to see how ridiculous they are. We are compelled to go to heroic lengths to observe social distancing in every way possible, except not when seated at a table with friends who live in different homes. The relaunch guidelines for restaurants show that the Alberta government sees us as naïve toddlers, who must be carefully managed and controlled. For our own good, of course.