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Ontario businesses prepare for Stage 2: 'It's sort of just a free-for-all'

BARRIE, Ont. — The highlight of Amber Abbott's Friday lunch wasn't the food, but the thrill of being close to people again.

Not too close, of course. The tables on the newly extended patio of Grillicious Gourmet Tap and Grill in Barrie, Ont., are located two metres apart in accordance with prevailing public health advice, and only a handful of customers were dotted across the area on the eatery's first day of welcoming patrons for outdoor dining since the widespread closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as Abbott basked in the sun taking in her city's slow return to pre-pandemic life, she said even the limited reopening offered a welcome reprieve for the past three lonely months.

"This has been really nice," Abbott said in an interview, saying she had felt "felt really disconnected from the world" throughout the pandemic.

Barrie is one of hundreds of municipalities across Ontario entering Stage 2 of the province's pandemic recovery plan.

Government rules announced at the beginning of the week and taking effect Friday give a host of service providers the green light to resume operations outside of the Greater Toronto, Hamilton and Windsor areas, where COVID-19 infection rates remain higher.

But even as restaurant operators, hair stylists and other professionals prepare to start welcoming customers back, they warn it won't be business as usual.

Communities cleared to resume aspects of pre-pandemic life are still grappling with the logistics of doing so, noting lack of government guidance and the pervasive presence of COVID-19 in other parts of the province make it a complex process.

Employees of Pie Wood Fired Pizza Joint in Barrie spent Friday morning pacing the 70-seat patio with tape measures in a bid to space tables two metres apart.

Operations manager Melissa Valenticevic said the outdoor seating space will be able to accommodate roughly a quarter of its usual capacity, noting provincial rules governing Stage 2 mean restaurants are not yet allowed to offer indoor service.

Valenticevic said the restaurant's reopening protocol will require servers to wear masks during all interactions with customers. But that protocol was developed without any meaningful input from government, she said, and businesses have largely been left to fend for themselves as they try to navigate an unusual new landscape.

"It's sort of just a free-for-all," Valenticevic said in an interview. "Everyone is sort of just looking at what other businesses are doing and adapting based on how other people are operating."

But Valenticevic anticipates high demand even for more limited operations, noting the restaurant has been fielding phone calls and social media inquiries "non-stop" since word of the limited reopening got out earlier this week.

Colleen Desimone, general manager at Grillicious, said her restaurant was in the same boat.

The hasty timeline also proved challenging, she said, noting staff had three days to do everything from printing disposable menus and developing COVID-19 screening questions for customers to securing city permission for the expanded patio.

Desimone said the current seating capacity and light customer load is a far cry from where things stood a year ago, but the slow reopening is a welcome development.

"We're very excited because restaurants got hit hard," she said, adding that reopening "is bringing back our staff and it's bringing back more revenue."

Based on her experience, Abbott said she feels restaurants are taking safety protocols seriously and she intends to urge friends to venture back out into the world.

"It's a good environment just to come out and enjoy but not have that closeness with everybody," she said.

But not all businesses are yet ready to open their doors.

In Barrie, salons and other personal care businesses remained closed on Friday despite having official permission to reopen.

Mayor Jeff Lehman said he's not surprised, noting businesses need time to implement pandemic protocols that work best for them.

"I don't think everybody's opening today or even tomorrow," he said. "They have to bring back their staff. They have to train them in the new health guidelines on how to operate in a COVID environment."

—with files from Michelle McQuigge in Toronto

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 12, 2020.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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