When Doug Ford mentioned he’d be coming down on big box stores like an “800-pound gorilla” Eddie Yeung, owner and one of three employees at Wonton Hut, had no reason to think his small business had anything to worry about.
“We have signs, temperature control, sanitizer,” Yeung said. “Also no one is allowed to go into the restaurant unless it’s take away or delivery. There is no dine in.”
But on Sunday, the restaurant situated in a strip mall plaza at Hwy. 7 and Warden, received an $ 880 ticket because they didn’t have a written workplace safety plan — a requirement they didn’t know about due to confusing and conflicting information posted on regional and provincial websites.
York Region’s Covid-19 Guide for Food Premises states a safety plan is required, with a link to Ontario’s workplace prevention site that says it “encourages” businesses to develop a safety plan, then says it may be required upon inspection.
Nadia Varbanova, an inspector with York Region Public Health, said the link may be “outdated,” noting that a safety plan was at one point recommended before becoming mandatory.
Since March 2020, York region has conducted 35,977 inspections with 820 charges and has used it’s Emergency Notification System to make sure business owners are equipped with the latest COVID regulations and requirements.
“We send to all business operators on our roster, and have also provided them links for further education. If operators don’t understand or have questions, we are always available to help. So now, the time has come to do enforcement.”
At the provincial level, the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development says it has conducted more than 36,500 COVID-19 related inspections. While inspections at the beginning of the pandemic focused on education, the emphasis is now shifting to enforcement. The ministry’s inspectors have been given discretion to issue tickets to businesses, owners, employers and customers. The fines range from $ 750 to $ 1,000.
In York Region, tickets for COVID-19 violations given to individuals come with a preset $ 750 fine plus a $ 130 victim surcharge fee. For corporations, the preset fine amount is $ 1,000, plus the $ 130 victim surcharge.
Wonton Hunt has a safety plan, it’s just not in writing, Yeung said. To protect his parents, the only other two employees at the restaurant, and customers, Yeung has spent more than $ 2,000 since March on a variety of safety measures, including PPE, protective plexiglass, informational signs and temperature sensor machines. They’ve also followed Ontario’s five-page guideline for cooks, servers and dishwashers since the beginning of the pandemic last spring.
“No one came to tell us we needed this plan,” Yeung says. “Now we find out the lack of communication with small businesses might end up costing them an $ 880 ticket — which is a lot for us these days.”
Along with confusing information on websites, Yeung is also concerned that the rules are only outlined in English. Since receiving his ticket, Yeung’s called 50 other local Chinese restaurants speaking to owners in Cantonese and Mandarin to make sure they know about the requirements. About 95 per cent of the restaurants said they had no idea where to find this safety plan, he said.
A 2016 report by the Municipality of York Region, gives a glimpse at how language barriers could be a problem. Among the findings: Recent immigrants who did not speak English or French was more than double the national average. Markham was dubbed Canada’s most ethnically diverse community that year with 78 per cent of the population identifying as a visible minority.
Past communications from York has been translated into multiple languages, said Melissa Pinto, a spokesperson for York Region, though she could not confirm which ones.
“If there is material that needs to be translated it could be translated on the provincial side,” she said.
Yeung says he wasn’t aware of any mass messages being sent out advising on COVID-19 regulations for his area.
He’s now campaigning to have the language barrier better addressed.
“This really drew my attention and concern, maybe something needs to be improved,” Yeung said. “We reached out to our local municipal government in hopes that more educational literature can be provided to small businesses, and information are not only in English, but in several different languages, so that small local businesses like ours can be educated to prevent from being fined.”