The light at the end of the tunnel for local pubs, restaurants and fitness facilities has suddenly gone a lot dimmer again.
Just as small businesses on Vancouver Island were seeing better days ahead, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced new restrictions Monday that will be in effect until April 19.
No restaurant or pub in B.C. is allowed to serve the public indoors during this time.
Campbell McIntyre, who operates both In the Beantime Cafe and Oyster Bay Cafe in Ladysmith, said he was shocked by the new restrictions.
“There was no notice. It didn’t really seem like things were headed that way. They seemed to be loosening restrictions, so it was a bit of a surprise when I heard that for sure,” he said, adding he is now faced with having to lay staff off.“It was like the taps shut right off — it was definitely a circuit breaker.”
Jane Ivens, owner of the Coach and Horses in Nanaimo, the Black Goose Inn in Parksville, and Fox and Hounds pub in Ladysmith, was in the middle of receiving a food order when she heard the news.
“We’ve just got a huge order in that would see us through on staple products for at least four or five days,” she said. “Although we’ll do take-out, there’s no way we’re going to use that volume of food.”
Ivens has to change schedules and reduce hours for staff at each restaurant. She said three weeks isn’t long enough for her employees to apply for employment insurance or find work elsewhere. She has patio space, but without indoor dining, Ivens estimated her business will drop 75 percent.
Martin Tang, owner of Appetit Food for Thought in downtown Ladysmith, estimated a 60 percent drop in business the day after the restrictions came into effect.
Appetit shares Ladysmith’s most prominent patio with Zack’s Lounge, but Tang worries that Vancouver Island’s fickle spring weather will keep customers from dining outside.
“It’s not patio weather at this point. Nobody wants to sit out with the wind and cold to enjoy a meal,” Tang said. “The customers understand where we’re at. But still, it’s really hard.”
Unlike the lockdown that occurred in spring 2020, restaurant workers don’t have the Canada Emergency Response Benefit to fall back on and other supports like the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy have been scaled back.
President and CEO of the BC Food and Restaurant Association, Ian Tostenson urged communities to support local restaurants through gift cards, take-out and outdoor patio dining.
“Most people were saying that they were just starting to get the groove of their business back. This causes a major interruption because you need to lay off workers. There are 1,000s of people out of work right now that you hope you can find when it’s time to reopen. And people are getting tired of this — tired of reduced hours, tired of being laid off,” Tostenson said.
According to the management team at Session Taproom in Campbell River, after a year of pivoting business models and adapting to restrictions, they’re getting quite good at it.
“The second time around we are moving quite a bit more quickly in terms of what we’re able to do and hitting the ground more quickly than previously because we’ve got the experience,” said Session manager Ryan Shankar-Price.
Though the latest restrictions are supposed to be only in place for three weeks, Shankar-Price said his team is preparing for more.
“I’m not holding my breath,” he said. “I’d say there’s a 25 per cent chance that date sticks. As we prepare for the next three weeks, we’re definitely looking further than that for what we can get in place now that will set us up if that doesn’t change.”
He said tenacity is what has kept restaurants open over the past year.
“We couldn’t have continued to pivot and adapt if we didn’t have the team that we do here,” Shankar-Price said. “It’s almost entirely on them and on us to execute these changes as quickly as they’re thrown at us, so we are super grateful.”
Tostenson said that if the restrictions last for longer than three weeks, the restaurant industry could be in real trouble.
Ultimately, the only way out is to lower the COVID case count in B.C., something that Tostenson is hopeful will happen sooner than later.
“It’s going to take a collective effort. All of us, it doesn’t matter what age you are, what can we do to stamp this down for three weeks so we can get the economy back?”
“Because more than three weeks will be almost unbearable.”
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— with files from Don Bodger and Marc Kitteringham