Arianne Persaud on restaurant industry, pre and post-COVID

9 October 2020 / by Sam Dharmasena
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As conversations around indoor dining continue, CJRU speaks with Arianne Persaud on the realities of Toronto’s restaurant industry. Persaud co-founded the Toronto Restaurant Workers Relief Fund and shares insights on how illness was handled prior to COVID-19 and what this history can tell us about the road ahead.


On Oct. 2, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. de Villa called for immediate action to stop the spread of COVID-19. One of her recommendations to the provincial government was prohibiting indoor dining. According to the city’s news release, 44% of the active community outbreaks between Sept. 20 and 26 were in restaurants, bars and entertainment venues. Section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act limits Dr. de Villa’s authority to act alone on this type of public health recommendation, so she was requesting that Dr. Williams used his legislative powers as Ontario’s Medical Officer to make these changes. Speaking to reporters at Queen’s Park on Oct 5, Premier Doug Ford mentioned that indoor dining will continue. Dr. Williams elaborated on the decision later in the day, telling reporters that the outbreaks referenced by Dr. de Villa were among staff during their pre & post work-time and in the back rooms. He added that they’re looking for data that patrons are being impacted.


In their Oct. 9 COVID-19 announcement, Dr. Williams and other health officials announced a pause on indoor dining effective Oct. 10 for at least 28 days. Based on CJRU’s earlier conversations with Persaud, it would seem wise to tackle the industry’s underlying issues so restaurant workers are protected in the long term. Reflecting and reconsidering industry practices in the time of COVID-19 would not only protect restaurant workers from the pandemic but also flu season or any other illness they may be experiencing.


“Pre-COVID, the guilt that restaurant workers have to take on when they advocate for themselves or ask for a sick day was overwhelming,” they say.


Persaud has worked in the restaurant industry for over a decade but didn’t return when restaurants reopened. Instead, they’re directing their energy towards the relief fund and their latest documentary, Behind, which follows restaurant industry workers navigating the pandemic. Through these projects, Persaud is always in conversation with restaurant workers and is noticing some common concerns.


They say poor treatment of restaurant workers predates the pandemic but that context plays a big role in how workers are treated now. Persaud is hearing that many restaurants are following the mask guidelines enforced by the government, but issues arise when sick workers ask for time off to rest or get tested for COVID-19. They say that workers are facing responses like “okay, but that’s too bad you’re letting the team down.” Persaud was hoping this form of manipulation would stop once the pandemic hit, but it seems just as common as before.


Persaud adds that many workers have had another experience where their manager will grant time off for COVID-19 tests, but hint at replacing them since the worker is unavailable until their tests come back negative. In this scenario, the worker advocating for their health would lose their job. According to Persaud, this behaviour is the backbone of the restaurant industry so it’s no surprise that there are so many outbreaks among restaurant staff. Just like before, workers are having to prioritize their health or livelihood.


“We’re interconnected but not supported… It’s one of the ways we’re taken advantage of by employers, this idea that you’re part of a family. And you’re part of a family separate from your employer so you’re responsible for each other but they’re not responsible for you,” Persaud explains.


As indoor dining pauses for the next 28 days, it’s ultimately a temporary solution to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on how restaurants might reopen beyond this time period. Persaud urges industry leaders to protect everyone, rather than protecting patrons at the expense of restaurant staff. Unless there’s a fundamental shift in hospitality, these stories will likely resurface when the city eventually returns to indoor dining.


Hear more from Arianne in the interview below (recorded Oct 6):