TORONTO -- Restaurants and bars have been excluded from the list of venues in Ontario that are allowed again to operate at full capacity, leaving many owners shocked and disappointed.
Tino Bianchi, who owns restaurants in the Greater Toronto Area, says he feels like they are being "targeted" by the province.
"It feels very unfair," Bianchi told CP24 Saturday afternoon.
"We've been through a rollercoaster ride throughout the lockdowns, the shutdowns, being partially opened at times. And it just feels unfair that other venues are allowed … full capacity."
The Ontario government announced late Friday afternoon that starting Oct. 9, it is "cautiously lifting" capacity restrictions at several settings requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination. They include spectator areas of facilities for sports and recreational fitness, cinemas, theatres, concert arenas, horse and car racing tracks, and film and TV productions with studio audiences.
The changes also apply to meeting and event spaces, but indoor capacity is limited to the number that would enable physical distancing.
The province said masking, screening and collecting information to support contact tracing would continue in these settings, while physical distancing will not be required with some exceptions.
The lifting of capacity limits comes as the Toronto Raptors and Toronto Maple Leafs get ready to open their respective seasons. It would allow them to play in front of a packed crowd at Scotiabank Arena for the first time since the pandemic began.
"It's unfair that a venue like an arena can pack in 20,000 people, and people can be sitting side by side," Bianchi said.
"It just feels unfair that big corporations and big box stores are allowed to operate at full capacity, and the small business owners are left in the dust."
He added that it is now time for the government to let restaurants operate at full capacity as they begin their recovery from the pandemic.
"We work much thinner margins at the end of the day. And it's already challenging with prices of food and other inflation. It's really important that we can get back to trying to run our businesses at a capacity that will make us survive," Bianchi said.
In a statement to CP24 Saturday, Alexandra Hilkene, a Ministry of Health spokesperson, said restaurants, bars and other food and drink establishments "do not have hard capacity limits." She added those establishments are limited to the number of people that can maintain physical distancing.
"That is because they are higher risk settings – prolonged close contact in enclosed spaces where face coverings are removed for the entire duration when seated," Hilkene said.
"The Chief Medical Officer of Health will continue to monitor the data and evaluate when it may be safe to consider lifting limits in other settings that require proof of vaccination."
Following the announcement, Restaurants Canada expressed their disappointment and renewed its call for all remaining capacity limits for restaurants and bars to be lifted.
"It's frustrating," Restaurants Canada vice-president James Rilett said in an interview with CP24 Saturday morning.
"We talked to the government. We thought they heard us. (We) thought they knew that the industry is in peril that (we) need help. At the first opportunity to help us, they just helped the big, large businesses and left small businesses in a lurch."
He said keeping restaurant capacity restrictions in place "makes no sense." Restaurants are also requiring their customers to provide proof of vaccination to enter their establishments.
"We don't understand why Ontario is singling us out to continue to have restrictions when 20,000 screaming fans can be shoulder to shoulder," Rilett said.
"It's hard for me not to have my disappointment show. Our restaurants are suffering every day, and it just continues. There's no hope that this will be lifted anytime soon."
Dan Kelly, the president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, said his group had received many angry messages from restaurants, gyms, dance studios over the capacity changes.
"To be clear, it is good news that Ontario is lifting capacity limits. But doing so for the big guys and not the small makes no sense and leads to questions, once again, as to why a government would so actively favour large firms over small," Kelly tweeted Saturday.
This article was edited from a previous version that misstated the given name of restaurant owner Tino Bianchi.