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Antonios Tsourounakis, owner of Deja Vu Restaurant and Bar in Hawkesbury, on the huge outdoor patio he can't open due to provincial health regulations. Photo by Reid Masson

Area bars and restaurants left reeling by province-wide lockdown, closure of outdoor dining spaces

Area bars and restaurants and have been left reeling after the latest Ontario shutdown, with many stuck with food supplies they can’t use and questioning why the government has forbidden service on outdoor patios.

“What’s been hard this time – harder than the others – is they have only given us in reality 24 hours to organize ourselves to shut down again,” says Andre Politakis, owner of Stephanie’s Grill and Hotel in Hawkesbury. “This morning, I literally had to argue with the person that delivers my breakfast potatoes, trying to tell him that if he leaves them I’ll have to throw them out – yesterday I didn’t know that we were going to close down.”

While the addition of delivery has helped, the restaurant’s owner notes the offerings are not the same as the regular indoor menu, which means many supplies – like fresh lobster – will have to be repurposed or given to workers to take home. Stephanie’s has also faced difficulties in retaining staff, as the constant layoffs create instability for servers who depend on tips and want a regular work schedule.

Politakis has written an open letter to the Ontario government, detailing his feelings about the constantly changing regulations, which he says have forced restaurants to incur extra costs, with little return for their efforts.

“I have been bounced around like a rubber-ball; lockdowns, re-openings, restrictions, sanitizing, covid screening, customer logs etc., etc. all to be in compliance with our ever-changing regulations and have the show go on,” reads his letter to provincial legislators. “The government has burdened small business beyond belief, disregarding completely that WE are the backbone of society and this economy.”

Antonios Tsourounakis, a Hawkesbury town councillor and owner of Deja Vu Restaurant and Bar, is facing many of the same difficulties related by Politakis, including staff issues and dealing with unneeded supplies. He could deal with a lot of those problems if Deja Vu was allowed to use its huge patio, and is extremely disappointed by the government’s decision to not allow food and drink service outdoors.

“Why the patio? It’s outside and the government keeps telling people to get outside and get some fresh air, try to get some sun and don’t coop yourself up for the sake of mental health,” says a frustrated Tsourounakis. “Here we have a distanced terrace, where you’re at least six feet away from everyone else and we can’t open – that makes no sense to me.”

The owner of Deja Vu also believes the province should have given far more notice to restaurants on the impending shutdown, in order to ensure they were not stuck with supplies which could not be used.

“Public health is number one, but it doesn’t seem they have any business people on their panel, because they would have told them that a restaurant is not a light switch – it’s not something you can just turn off and on. A restaurant needs to order food well in advance. You plan for a big weekend and all of a sudden they tell you you’re closing tomorrow.”

Mike St. Denis, co-owner of the Windsor Tavern in Vankleek Hill, echoes Tsourounakis’ remarks. The Windsor has a large outdoor event tent, which was set up all last summer and staff were looking forward to deploying again in the next couple of weeks. But the lockdown rules have scuttled that idea.

“I thought there would be a lockdown, but not on outside patio service,” St. Denis says. “It’s not the end of the world – thank God we’ve been in business for a long time – but it’s still depressing.”

“Now the weather is starting to get nice out. Why can’t you be outside with patio heaters, social distancing and fresh air – what more could you want?”

The latest lockdown will also be a major shift for Nicko’s Restaurant in Vankleek Hill. Normally open from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m, and offering a breakfast and lunch menu, Nicko’s now has to switch to a take-out format during afternoons and evenings.

“We have to change our hours again, because we don’t have take out at six o’clock in the morning,” understates Nicko’s co-owner Louise Gouskos. “We’re open for lunch and supper, instead of breakfast and lunch.”

Even when the dining room is open, there has been a big change in the way customers interact at Nicko’s, the restaurant’s owner says.

“Our restaurant is a social place – people come to see others and talk,” Gouskos observes. “Now people come in and we have to ask them if they live together and seat people at different tables away from each other – it’s not the same.”

Chantal Lascelles, owner of Vert Fourchette in Vankleek Hill, says she was better prepared for the current lockdown than previous ones, having expected the new rules to be strict.

“We’ve been anticipating it for about a week, but it doesn’t hurt any less,” Lacelles says. “What’s hard for us is all the changes the government is making within the zones – it’s really hard to follow, because some customers are unaware.”

Like other restaurants Vert Fourchette’s biggest challenge has been retaining staff affected by the constant closings and re-openings.

One area which has helped Vert Fourchette has been the restaurant’s shift to a weekly take out menu. Customers can order online in advance and pick up their meals on specific days.

“Our weekly menu is continuing, which is something we’ve been doing since the first lockdown,” says Lascelles. “We have developed a very steady clientele.”

Reid Masson

Reid Masson is a graduate of Algonquin College's Journalism Program. He has over 20 years of experience as a staff writer and editor for various newspapers across Canada, including The Ottawa Citizen and Brockville Recorder and Times.

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