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Oakville restaurants adapt to new COVID-related measures

Julia Hanna
Julia Hanna

Although the cold months will undoubtedly bring trepidation among many restaurant owners, businesses remain resilient in the face of COVID-19. 

Julia Hanna, the owner of Ritorno in North Oakville, says the pandemic has been a constant challenge over the last six months and worries about the upcoming season.

“Going back inside now, we’re about to face the biggest challenge. It’s a horrible coincidence now that the winter is here and it also comes with the numbers rising,” Hanna said. “Those things together will be the greatest challenge our industry has ever seen.”

Hanna has spent thousands of dollars on hospital-grade air disinfection purifiers in preparation of Ritorno’s indoor dining this fall and winter. In addition to this large investment, Hanna says Ritorno has been following all the regulations set out by the province, including touch-free hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the restaurant, social distancing signage, and contact tracing measures.

“The number one overriding concern for myself and fellow restauranteurs is people’s health and keeping them safe,” Hanna said.

As challenging as it has been for her and her staff, she has also seen it as an opportunity for restauranteurs to rethink their business model. In addition to increased take-out sales, Hanna launched “Ritorno at Home,” a program for customers to buy the restaurant’s homemade pasta and sauces. 

Rob O’Donovan, owner of The King’s Arms in downtown Oakville, has responded to similar demands as a result of the pandemic. The King’s Arms is a long-standing restaurant that has been a staple in the community for decades. 

“Adapting to everything has been like rewriting the rule book. It’s been quite the interesting time,” said O’Donovan, who has been running The King’s Arms with his partner for the past 10 years. “Restaurants that are still here are lucky to be here.”

The King’s Arms has also been abiding by health and safety regulations. In addition to 15 sanitizer stations throughout the restaurant and regular temperature checks upon arrival, O’Donovan has installed an air fogger that disinfects the air in the restaurant.  

O’Donovan noted that December will likely show significant losses for restaurants that usually host holiday parties, as The King’s Arms has done every year. But to prepare for the cold months, he winterized the restaurant’s patio by tenting and heating the entire space. 

“The expense per month to have a tented patio with heaters is unbelievable, but these are things that we have to do to get people coming here,” O’Donovan said. “I think it’s going to be hard, but people are going to places where they think it’s safe.”

Similar to Ritorno, take-out sales at The King’s Arms have been record-high in the last six months. However, it’s not a long-term strategy that O’Donovan feels comfortable relying on. 

“Take-out is great, but we can’t rely on it to survive,” O’Donovan said. “We will get through this.”

The newly tented and heated patio at The King
The newly tented and heated patio at The King's Arms in downtown Oakville. | Stephanie Grella

Meanwhile, two former Oakville residents have started an app called aimed at helping restaurant owners with contact tracing. 

Curtis Lush, CEO and founder, and Nathan Arfin, COO and business development executive, hope to give the hospitality industry a modern solution to the problems they’ve been facing during the pandemic.  

“The problem is the customer’s sense of security and a lot of anxiety, not the least of which is about your health,” Arfin said. “It’s a new thing and a lot of people have questions and concerns about it.”

Restaurant owners can create a free account for Upon arrival, customers scan a QR code on their smartphones that allows them to enter their name and email address (or phone number) for contact tracing. The customer information is then sent to the app’s database, where it is safely stored and accessed only when there’s a reported case in that restaurant. 

If someone tests positive for COVID-19, Public Health would take that person through a preliminary questionnaire to determine who they have been in contact with. Public Health will notify any restaurants that were potentially exposed, and restaurants registered with can then request access to customers' contact information during the timeframe of a potential exposure. 

With more than 250 registered restaurants in Ontario, New York, and British Columbia, Arfin noted that additional information is required for establishments located in high-risk areas, such as Toronto. 

“It’s been fantastic. We haven’t had pushback so much as we’ve had questions as to why we’re collecting information and what we’re doing with it,” Arfin said. “We’re very forthcoming and we have no reason to hide what we’re doing. We’re trying to offer clarity and provide solutions for everyone, for restaurants and guests.”

As many Oakville restaurants attempt to adapt to this unprecedented shift in the hospitality industry, Hanna of Ritorno is encouraging people to continue to support local businesses.

“COVID is robbing us of places that make us feel better. All I want people to imagine is what it would look like if small, independent retailers were gone,” Hanna said. “COVID has literally been a rug torn out from under us and we’re all just trying to find our balance.”