Restaurants can return to full capacity, if they have the space | The Coast Halifax

Restaurants can return to full capacity, if they have the space

Are 100 percent capacity and physical distancing mutually exclusive?

Restaurants can return to full capacity, if they have the space
lenny mullins
Don't get your hopes up. When premier McNeil says bars and restaurants can operate at full capacity now, he doesn't mean a return to this sort of pre-COVID, Stillwell Beergarden scene.
Premier Stephen McNeil made a major announcement this afternoon to help restaurants during the pandemic. At least it sounded like a big deal. As of today, June 26, restaurants and bars in Nova Scotia are allowed to operate at their full capacity, not the 50 percent limit the province imposed when the first stage of reopening happened back on June 5. Restaurants and bars can also serve until midnight and remain open until 1am.

“In the two weeks we’ve been away from these briefings we’ve had no new cases of COVID, and that’s why we’re able to begin to open up our province even more,” McNeil said at the COVID-19 virtual press conference Friday.

Bars operating at full capacity, and not kicking people out until 1am? That sounds like it's practically the old normal, from before C19. The catch is that tables must still be physically distanced, and one group of customers (up to the provincially allowed 10 people) can’t be within two metres of another group. So when McNeil talks about 100 percent capacity, he means 100 percent of the new, physically distanced, post-COVID normal. For most restaurants and bars, their maximum capacity with physical distancing is much lower than their pre-pandemic capacity, and they'd already reached it at the 50 percent limit.

“I can’t think of a single restaurant that naturally has parties sitting two meters apart,” says Chris Cuddihy, co-owner of Salvatore’s Pizzaiolo Trattoria. “I wish they hadn’t bothered announcing the change. It makes them look good but confuses customers and leads to disappointment when we have to explain that we actually can’t accommodate them.”

Bar Stillwell, which operates three locations in Halifax, says they've interpreted the new announcement in the same way.

"It doesn’t affect us at all. We can’t change anything because us, like everyone else, we fit as many tables as we can with the six feet distancing between them. So it’s not going to allow us to add anything," says Stillwell co-owner Laura MacDonald.

The Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia guidelines for running a hospitality business in a COVID world suggest that moving tables apart isn't the only way to keep customers safe: "Temporary table dividers may be installed to make social distancing easier for restaurants with communal seating or larger tables. Where practical, separate booth seating with physical barriers or maintain physical distance." Installing dividers all over a restaurant might be a way to run at full pre-COVID capacity while staying within the RANS rules, although such construction has its own challenges.

"At the end of the day, it’s really expensive," says MacDonald. "So it’s kind of prohibitive to try to plexi out the entire place. It’s like, how much do you invest in something that you don’t know how long you’re going to need it for?"

MacDonald says Stillwell has already invested $1,500 on three sets of barriers to create bar seats at their Barrington and Agricola Street locations, and can't justify more. "When you’re not able to generate as much income as you normally would, it’s hard to reinvest in temporary solutions," she says.

In a follow-up to today's announcement, the Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness tells The Coast that business owners can make their own decisions as long as they follow public health and industry guidelines.

"What this means for each establishment will depend on the operation and the safety measures they choose to put in place," says a government rep in an email.

The RANS guidelines have yet to be updated to reflect changes associated with today’s announcement.