Leave your contact info when dining: Restaurants taking details to trace COVID-19

TORONTO — As COVID-19 restrictions ease and restaurants start to welcome customers back, one thing Canadians may soon have to get used to is providing their personal information before they grab a bite.

Guidelines for restaurants vary in each province. But some jurisdictions are requiring a customer's name and phone number or email address, along with their table number, to help with contract tracing in the event of an outbreak.

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Ontario announced Friday that it will require bars and restaurants to keep client logs for 30 days. These will have to be disclosed to the medical officer of health or an inspector if tracing is needed.

In Toronto, collecting the info can be done at the time of reservations or through another system, said Toronto Public Health spokesperson Vinita Dubey.

Dubey said indoor bars and restaurants present a higher level of risk for COVID-19 transmission because they involve crowds, close contact and closed spaces.

"As soon as (Toronto Public Health) becomes aware of a COVID-19 case, we act on the information to follow up immediately," Dubey said in an email.

Similar guidelines apply to restaurants and bars in British Columbia.

That province's public health officials have started requiring restaurants to collect personal information from customers when they make reservations or at the time of seating. The details also have to be kept for a month.

Since reopening, Acorn Restaurant in Vancouver has only been taking reservations, which makes it easier to collect customer information.

"Thankfully our guests have been pretty understanding," said founder Shira Blustein. "Some guests have been equally anxious to be out so they're appreciative of our plan."

Gerald Evans, chair of the infectious diseases division at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said contact tracing was done at restaurants even before COVID-19.

Public health officials have used reservation lists to contact diners in the event of a food-borne outbreak, he said.

"It’s not unprecedented in the restaurant industry that public health would reach out to them and get that kind of information."

Evans said one drawback is that there is no way to verify the information a customer is giving is correct.

"Now, 99 per cent of the public is going to be truthful, but what do you do with the one per cent?" he asked.

If people giving false information becomes a problem, governments could potentially step in to make sure that people have to show an ID card to verify their identity, Evans suggested.

He said collecting customer information is much more effective than "passive tracing," in which public health does a broad announcement about a case at a specific restaurant on a certain day. That practice has been criticized by some restaurant owners.

Restaurants Canada vice-president David Lefebvre said there are costs associated with collecting personal details. And it can be time-consuming for places that provide quick service to a lot of customers.

"Our position as an association on this is: let's make sure everybody, as a recommendation, respect the public health requirements," he said.

"But at the same time, let’s make sure that it's not something that becomes too onerous and costs too much."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 2, 2020

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