LILLEY: Restaurant owners furious as Ford government, Minister MacLeod skips call

Tuesday-morning call with Ontario’s restaurant industry was organized by Minister MacLeod’s office

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Restaurant owners in Ontario — already furious with the Ford government for lifting capacity limits for arenas, theatres and other large venues — were left outraged Tuesday when not a single minister appeared on a government-arranged conference call to defend the move or even offer an explanation.

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The words used to describe the meeting ranged from embarrassing to horrendous, including a series of unprintable expletives.

While the restaurateurs believed they would be speaking with Heritage Minister Lisa MacLeod Tuesday morning, they were instead left with staff from hers and the premier’s office.

MacLeod’s office had requested the call over weekend, and restaurant owners expected she would be there.

As owners and operators expressed their frustration on the call, including with the lack of ministerial involvement, Carlo Oliviero — director of stakeholder relations in Premier Ford’s office — asked participants several times not to speak to the media.

Late Friday afternoon, the government issued a news release titled “Ontario Cautiously Lifting Capacity Limits in Select Settings.”

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That news release detailed how nearly 87% of Ontario’s eligible population had their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and nearly 82% had a second dose.

It also described how the requirement to show proof of vaccination was making the locations that were opening up safer to be at.

Of course, all the facts that the government put forward Friday also apply to restaurants and rarely are you sitting as close to someone in a restaurant as you are in shoulder-to-shoulder seating at an arena or stadium.

Restaurant owners and operators were right to be furious and right to expect answers to their questions.

Sadly, they didn’t get them.

Time and again during the call, restaurateurs demanded to know what the government based their decision on, blaming Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kieran Moore.

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While Dr. Moore makes recommendations, it is cabinet, led by Ford, who makes the actual decisions.

At a news conference Tuesday morning, Rod Phillips, the minister of long term care, was asked why the difference in how packed stadiums and empty restaurants are treated.

“Those facilities don’t have strict capacity limits but they do have requirements for social distancing,” Phillips said.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

People are packed into these sporting events, be they inside or out and while there may technically be a requirement to wear a mask, that disappears as soon as a beer or hot dog is in hand.

With answers like that and bad decisions like what came out on Friday, it’s no wonder the restaurant industry is raging.

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“It’s an extremely bad decision, we feel we’re being targeted and we don’t know why,” said Paul Bogna, CEO of SIR Corp, the company behind brands such as Jack Astor’s, Reds and Scaddabush.

Bognar was far from alone. Every restaurant operator contacted on or off the record was equally angry and frustrated.

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“It’s extremely disappointing, frustrating and has no scientific backing,” said Larry Issacs, president of the Firkin Group of Pubs.

“I feel like the Ford government has turned their backs on restaurants,” added Michael Hunter, partner in Toronto’s Antler Kitchen and Bar.

Premier Ford has heard from many angry people in the industry and has promised to fix this, claiming that he is on their side.

If that were truly the case, he would have dealt with this properly last week instead of leaving the restaurant industry out of Friday’s announcement.

It was his decision; he leads the cabinet table.

One thing several restaurateurs made clear on Tuesday’s call is that if they don’t get answers soon, plans are in the works to engage in civil disobedience and just open up.

It will be hard to blame them if they do.

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