TORONTO -- When a state of emergency was declared in Ontario on Tuesday morning to curb the spread of COVID-19, some Toronto restaurant owners had already made the tough decision to close their doors ahead of government action. 

Restaurateur and author Jen Agg took to Instagram on Sunday to announce she’d be closing all five of her restaurants in Toronto because it felt like a “moral obligation." 

“If you don’t give people places to go, maybe they’ll just stay home,” said Agg, in an effort to encourage social distancing. Her video message resonated with other restaurant owners across the city, who said Agg’s Instagram post was a factor that sparked their decision-making. 

“That spoke to us,” Good Fork co-owner Ali Yalcin told in a phone interview on Monday night. “There was a sense of uneasiness among our staff too. Are we helping this virus spread? I couldn’t sleep over the weekend.” On Monday morning, Yalcin met with staff and management of the Toronto restaurant and came to the decision to stop service. 

In the lead-up to that decision, Yalcin said he had noticed a dramatic drop in service at the Good Fork starting last Wednesday. Meanwhile, Gil Filar, the manager of The Rosedale Diner, a restaurant that has been open for 42 years in Toronto’s east end, said he noticed a change in service on Saturday. 

“Our brunches are always packed, but Saturday’s brunch wasn’t. On Saturday night, it was dead and the neighbourhood was dead too,” Filar told in a phone interview on Tuesday morning.

Data shared by OpenTable, an app and website that provides reservation services to 60,000 restaurants, shows that indeed people are opting not to go out for dinner because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As of Sunday, Canada has seen a 47 per cent drop in dinner reservations in comparison to last year, according to OpenTable. Toronto restaurants saw a 54 per cent drop in dinner reservations. 

While The Rosedale Diner uses a different service for reservations, Filar said he is not surprised by those numbers. His family has owned the restaurant for 39 years and has never closed its doors. 

“I had a lot of extended conversations with my parents, who were reluctant to close the restaurant because they’re so used to staying open through everything, even power outages in the city, we’d still be open,” he said. “But we have a very close relationship with our customers and our employees and endangering any of them for the sake of trying to make a few extra bucks is not worth it.” 

“The only thing I could see more ridiculous than staying open at a time like this would be going to restaurants,” he added. 

Filar said his parents’ age was also a deciding factor. “They’re in their 70s and at the restaurant all the time. I don't want them having any contact with anybody right now.” 

According to health officials, elderly people and those with pre-existing medical conditions are the most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

The decision to close for a few weeks with no certainty of how the COVID-19 pandemic will unfold is a tough decision for restaurant owners. Many owners operate on a slim profit margin and serving staff rely heavily on tips. 

“We’re uneasy because it's like resting on a bed of nails,” said Yalcin. 

Filar and Yalcin both have laid off their staff temporarily so they can apply for employment insurance and have some form of income during this period.

Closing a restaurant not only affects the immediate staff, but there’s a whole chain of people to think about, said Yalcin. 

“We get our eggs from farmers in Newmarket and we get our beef from Hamilton so those farms are going to struggle,” he said. “All that was weighing on me.” 

Yalcin said they also had a lot of food left over when they closed so they divided that among the staff and then took the rest to Aangen community centre in Toronto. 

“They cook for shelters so they’re cooking throughout [the pandemic],” he said. “That’s the other thing - we’re running away from the fire, but these community centres and healthcare workers are running into this fire. So we try to help them whenever we can.” 

Filar is calling on the provincial and federal government to step up and “help the little person out.” 

“We’re a business, but we’re part of the community too. And I want my employees to be protected and I want us to be protected,” he added. 

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Parliament will likely sit again so they could pass legislation to help the Canadian economy during this health crisis. 

In Ontario, restaurants and bars have been ordered to remain closed until March 31 under the state of emergency. Establishments are allowed to maintain take-out and delivery services.