The industry organization posted its original re-opening guidelines on May 27, giving restaurants time to plan and organize for the re-opening on June 5.
The regulations included reducing contact between staff, sanitizing and cleaning more often, and screening restaurant patrons for the virus. A few weeks later, on June 26, the regulations changed to allow 100 percent capacity where possible while still maintaining social distancing, rather than the original 50 percent.
But one regulation remained unclear to some servers and customers: masks.
“Public Health authorities had said it’s required when distance cannot be maintained. But I think that that was interpreted differently by different people for sure,” says Natasha Chestnut, spokesperson for RANS.
Chestnut says the intention all along was that restaurant staff (except where health exemptions apply) should be wearing non-medical masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
But the wording of the regulation, that masks are required for “for staff that cannot always physically distance two metres,” isn’t black and white.
“It wasn’t so much maybe that it was a grey area, I just think it was left up to interpretation a little bit in terms of well does that mean servers have to wear them all the time? Who in the restaurant needs to wear them? I think there were just some unanswered questions there,” Chestnut tells The Coast.
Through the confusion, many servers were wearing masks from the beginning. "It's impossible to socially distance from a table you're serving," says one Halifax restaurant employee.
On July 14, RANS received correspondence from the government clarifying the rules and asking RANS to update the public.
Chestnut says Strang gave the update because "there was some confusion and it was left up to interpretation" concerning masks. So "he just made it very clear that it is required that servers wear masks.”
But despite a press conference held by the provincial government just a few days later on July 17, there was no mention of the restaurant industry mask requirement by Premier McNeil or Dr. Strang to let the public know of the updated interpretation of the guideline. The government website has no new info either.
“I have been checking the Nova Scotia government website a bit, I haven’t seen it there, I haven’t really seen that blurb updated anywhere else. But we clearly received that message so we’re just going to do our part and encourage the restaurants to do what’s required,” says Chestnut.
A spokesperson from the Nova Scotia Department of Environment, which oversees restaurant inspections, says the regulations have in fact not been updated at all. (Despite direction to servers waffling back and forth as the need for clarification became clear).
“There has been no change or update to the plan. Nova Scotia Environment is working with Labour and Advanced Education and Service Nova Scotia & Internal Services on a collaborative approach to compliance,” says media relations advisor Barbara MacLean.
RANS has now updated their website with a version of the regulations dated June 12, although they appear no different than the May 27 regulations with regards to the masks regulation and even still include the 50 percent capacity rule.
The correspondence between RANS and the government has still not been made public, but Chestnut told The Coast that RANS would make the industry letter from Strang—which they’ve sent out twice in a member’s bulletin to their 1,550 member restaurants—public, ASAP.
“Now that I have the official letter, I’m going to update on our website then it’s there as well,” she says.
Previously, Chestnut said she’d get frequent calls about the rules around masks, but RANS has stopped getting inquiries from restaurants after the recent update, meaning at least someone must be aware of the change.
“It’s an all or nothing, either you’re not listening and not wearing them, or you’re wearing them," says Chestnut. "So it doesn’t really leave much room for interpretation anymore."
If you’ve spoken to restaurant staff about mask-wearing and still feel they aren’t following regulations, it can be reported to the Department of Labour and Advanced Education by emailing email@example.com or by calling 1-800-952-2687.