Regional Council urges medical officer to drop restaurant-killing COVID-19 order

Dr. Hirj Dr. Mustafa Hirji, Niagara Region's acting medical officer at the Niagara Regional Council meeting defending his medical order

Niagara Regional Council passed a motion unanimously Wednesday night to recommend that the region’s acting medical officer amend his controversial medical order, that the restaurant industry says if left as is would decimate its ranks.

The four-part motion is a recommendation from Council that primarily urges acting medical director Dr. Mustafa Hirji to remove a regulation limiting restaurant patrons to four people per table from the same household.

The Council can not compel Hirji, who drew fury from restaurant owners in recent days, to change the so-called Section 22 order, which he authored. Only he can change or revoke it under provincial law. It is not clear if Hirji will comply with the recommendation.

Overstepped his boundaries

“With the motion to rescind the order, I couldn’t possibly be happier about it. But it is merely a suggestion to the doctor that maybe he overstepped his boundaries and his order was unnecessary,” said Niagara restaurateur Mark Wood, who represents an hastily put together alliance that represents the Niagara hospitality industry and its workers.

If Hirji heeds the advice of Council, it will be a victory for Wood and his allies in the business. Wood, who owns three pubs, one in Grimsby and two in St. Catharines, created an impromptu lobby group of Niagara restaurant owners and workers. The alliance, called Niagara Restaurants United, formed Saturday to fight the Nov. 11 order which Wood says “unfairly targets” the sector and is not based on “good science”.

Before the meeting, Wood pledged to “go to war” with Hirji and Niagara Regional Public Health if the order was not overturned by Friday. Wood says he will need to lay off half his staff by Friday if the order is not amended. It is likely that a cascade of Niagara hospitality industry layoffs and bankruptcies would follow in the ensuing months if the order is not amended. Restaurant owners say the household-only diners part of the order will result in droves of customers staying home.

The Council’s motion also included a recommendation that a review of any changes to the order by Hirji be completed by the Niagara Region’s Board of Public Health every two weeks. The Board’s is populated largely by regional councillors that attended the emergency meeting.

“Some of the Councillors ripped Hirji good in their line if questioning,” said Wood.

They outed Hirji’s failure to consult in any meaningful way with the Region’s elected officials before he issued the order. Their questions also showed Hirji and his staff failed to communicate the order clearly leaving Niagara residents and hospitality business owners unclear of what the order was mandating. The order said a “support” person outside a household could dine with a non-household member, but did not make clear what that person could be. Hirji during questioning clarified that long-time friends or related family members could be considered support persons. That lack of clarity, however, left many confused.

Young adults primary COVID-19 spreaders in Niagara

The Council’s motion also recommended that the town and city manager in each jurisdiction across the Region look for ways to mitigate the behavior of young adults at gatherings through bylaw enforcement. Hirji says that group is the primary spreader of COVID-19 in the Niagara Region. He identified 41 events where COVID-19 was spread via gatherings at public eateries and bars or at sports and recreation gatherings. He attributes those infections to young adults engaging with each other in public settings.

The fourth part of the Council’s motion recommends that the any person or company fined under the medical order be identified publicly and have their names published.

Read how Mark Wood put his alliance together
View the meeting on YouTube