As she looks out over her downtown fitness studio, Jennifer Lau sees more than a few empty spaces.
“Normally we’d have 25 or 30 people in a class. Now it’s 12,” said Lau, owner of Fit Squad.
Lau is hopeful she’ll soon be able to return class sizes to normal, as the Ontario government gets sets to announce aplan as early as next week that could lift capacity restrictions for gyms, restaurants and yoga studios.
“We’re probably at about 50 or 60 per cent of our normal revenue,” said Lau. “This has been very hard on the entire industry, so the sooner they lift the restrictions the better.”
But while gym and restaurant owners — and small business advocates — urge the government of Premier Doug Ford to lift the restrictions as soon as possible, epidemiologists are sounding a cautionary note.
“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be taking these steps. But in an ideal world, we would be waiting another three or four weeks,” said Dr. Peter Juni, a professor of epidemiology at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
Juni acknowledged that COVID case counts have been dropping over the last few weeks, but there are two big things that could easily push them back up.
As the warm weather fades and patio season vanishes, indoor activities — including dining and going to the gym — are inherently riskier when it comes to COVID, said Juni. He also pointed to evidence that protection from COVID-19 vaccines diminishes over time.
“We’ll have the colder weather working against us and we’ll have the waning vaccine protection working against us,” said Juni, who is also the scientific director of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network, said it’s reasonable for governments to revisit COVID restrictions from time to time. But he warned that the course of the epidemic can change in a hurry.
“We’ve seen that this is a very dynamic situation. Just because things are going well today doesn’t mean they’ll be going well in a month or two, especially as we head into winter. Vaccination is the biggest layer of protection, but it’s not the only one,” said Bogoch.
There’s no doubt, he added, that lifting capacity restrictions will lead to more COVID cases. And that means the government needs to be crystal clear in communicating that any loosening won’t necessarily be permanent.
“If they lift the capacity restrictions there will be more cases. The question is how many?” said Bogoch. “I think what the government needs to make clear is that this isn’t necessarily a one-way move. We’ve seen how quickly things can get out of control.”
Celina Blanchard, owner of Roncesvalles favourite Lambretta Pizzeria, is eager for the restrictions to be lifted and says it should have been done Sept. 22, when Ontario began requiring proof of vaccination for anyone wanting to engage in a wide variety of indoor activities, including working out in a gym or dining indoors.
“If people had to be vaccinated to get in, there’s no reason at all we shouldn’t be at 100 per cent capacity,” said Blanchard.
Restrictions for restaurants and gyms became even tougher to take last Friday, when the province decided to allow full capacity crowds at sports arenas, stadiums and concert halls.
“It’s a joke at this point. I don’t think they realize how upset people are,” said Blanchard.
Lau agreed, saying the move was “a slap in the face” for struggling gym owners.
“It felt like we were an afterthought, like we have been throughout this entire pandemic,” said Lau.
Ryan Mallough, Ontario regional director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, urged the government to lift the restrictions as soon as possible.
“Small businesses have been through so much over the last 19 months. Every single day matters when you’re just hanging on,” said Mallough, who was frustrated but not shocked when the government moved to open sports arenas to full capacity just ahead of the NHL and NBA seasons.
It’s simply another case, said Mallough, of governments thinking of big companies first. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, he pointed out, is controlled by BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications, the two biggest telecom companies in the country.
“They picked Rogers and Bell. Just like earlier during the pandemic they went with Walmart and Canadian Tire. The small businesses weren’t given any consideration,” said Mallough.
Those big arenas shouldn’t be anywhere near full capacity for the time being, argued Colin Furness, an assistant professor of epidemiology at U of T. Furness argued restaurants would be safer, as long as they’ve got improved ventilation and air filtration.
“Look at what happened in Europe this summer. There were big outbreaks traced back to the Euro soccer championship and those were outside. Odds are, in a crowd as big as you get in a sports arena there are going to be some people carrying COVID. And some people with fake vaccine certificates,” said Furness. “These big sports events can become superspreaders.”