Regional Chair says Council is seeking solutions to help Niagara restaurants in crisis over medical officer’s order

Niagara Regional Chair Jim Bradley and Acting Medical Officer Dr. Mustafa Hirji Niagara Regional Chair Jim Bradley and Acting Medical Officer Dr. Mustafa Hirji

Updated: 4:14 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18

Niagara Regional Chair Jim Bradley issued a statement this afternoon on the controversial medical order issued by the Region’s acting medical officer that has restaurant owners and workers fearing for their business and jobs.

“Now that we are in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health authorities at the provincial and local level are taking the steps they feel necessary to help slow the transmission of the coronavirus and protect the residents of Niagara and the Province of Ontario,” said Bradley’s statement. “It is important to note that medical officers of health act independently and make decisions that are free of external political influence. In this case, we know that Public Health made the section 22 orders based on the transmission trends we are seeing locally.”

The order was singlely issued by the Dr. Mustafa Hirji, Niagar Region’s acting medical officer, without consultation from regional council and is issued under provincial law.

On Tuesday night, Niagara Regional Councillors requested that Hirji halt his order, a resolution authored by Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati, that says Hirji’s order will cause “unnecessary business losses and casualties.”

Today, Regional Council will meet at 4:40 p.m. Hirji is expected to answer questions from Council.

Fears are running high that Dr. Mustafa Hirji COIVD-19 order that targets Niagara restaurants and hospitality businesses will kill a vast number of them, leaving thousands out of work.

Hirji’s order forces businesses to turn away diners who want to eat together but do not live together in the same household. It also puts a limit of four to a table. It so enraged restaurateur Mark Wood, who owns a Grimsby pub and two St. Catharines restaurants, that he started an alliance called Niagara Restaurants United.

The net result is social media attacks on Hirji and unfettered rage and frustration from restaurant owners and workers. Their complaints are that the order unfairly targets the food service industry even though there is no evidence that restaurants are a widespread source of infections. Niagara has gone from single digit new COVID-19 daily infections to over 50 on some days in November. The second wave of COVID-19 has ignited new infections across Ontario. In Niagara Region in the last five days since Friday the daily new case high was 29 on Saturday. Today, it was 16 new cases. Although seemingly small numbers, Niagara has been placed in the Orange-Restrict tier of the provinces new classification system. Hirji’s order is exclusive to the region where he has sole jurisdiction and is additive to the province’s guidelines for the tier.

In his statement, Bradley added: “It is critical to point out that the Section 22 orders were designed to be a proactive step to help keep Niagara from being placed in the province’s red category, which carries far more restrictions than we are currently experiencing.”

Bradley said “we are sympathetic that the public health orders being laid out at the provincial and local level have the unintended consequence of impacting of many local business.” He said Regional Council is considering a number of motions at our special meeting at 4:40 p.m. today to support businesses, including advocating to the province and federal government for financial support for our restaurants.”

Now all eyes are the meeting this afternoon as the embattled Dr. Hirji answers questions from councillors. Also at the meeting presenting his case is Mark Wood, the founder of Niagara Restaurants United (NRU). A nascent alliance of hospitality business owners that he pull together last weekend. In five days, the NRU’s informal membership has ballooned with 2,000 followers on a Facebook group and a petition that contains 4,000 signatures.

Wood owns and operates The Forty Public House in Grimsby and two St. Catharines eateries, The Grantham House and The Office.

Hirji was silent abbout the backlash after Wood ignited it with a letter to regional politicians. Hirji broke his silence Wednesday morning telling the St. Catharines Standard he will not rescind his Section 22 order.

“That is not something we are going to consider at this time,” he told the paper.

Asked if his alliance members have declared war on Hirji, Wood said: “Most just want to go back to work. There are a few extreme voices in the mix, but I do not believe that is a fair statement,” but he added, “I personally am prepared to declare war if this doesn’t solve the problem.”

Looking ahead to this afternoon’s meeting where he will address the regional council, Wood said: “It seems clear the majority of the politicians throughout Niagara agree with me that this order has gone too far. We can only hope Dr. Hirji’s ego doesn’t prevent him from understanding his overstep in this situation.”

Restaurateurs’ key argument against the directive is that they are held to a higher and more restrictive standard than other businesses like retail stores. They also say that the Niagara Region when citing sources of COVID-19 infection do not list restaurants as a category from where the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, spreads. Wood previously said Hirji issued the order without the backing of good science. Hirji’s office did not return calls or provided any comment after repeated requests from The Bench News this week. Bradley’s office said his response was as a result of a referral from Hirji’s office.

Related: The backstory on how Wood came to fight Hirji’s order