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New restrictions will make it difficult to turn a profit, says restaurateur Leslie Echino, pictured here behind the bar at Blink Restaurant and Bar in downtown Calgary, in this file photo from November 13, 2015.Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Alberta restaurants are permitted to open as early as next week, but some owners worry they won’t be able to turn a profit under COVID-19 restrictions and they wonder if customers will be ready for a dine-in meal.

The Alberta government has laid out a three-phase plan to reopen the provincial economy. The plan would allow some businesses, including cafés, pubs and restaurants, to open May 14 if a number of public-health measures are in place by then and officials don’t see a rise in infections. Those businesses would only be able to operate at 50-per-cent capacity.

Several provinces have released plans to relaunch their economies but Alberta’s target for reopening restaurants appears to be the earliest so far.

The food industry has been hit hard by the COVID-19 restrictions across the country. In Alberta, restaurants have been prohibited from offering dine-in services since late March, leading to mass layoffs as eateries switched to takeout and delivery or shut down entirely.

Despite those losses, the response to the reopening has been mixed, with some restaurant owners unsure if the risk of opening their doors will outweigh the benefits.

Mark von Schellwitz, Western Canada vice-president of Restaurants Canada, said the relaunch plan couldn’t have come soon enough for members of his organization that represent the food-service industry.

“The quicker the better that they can reopen, that’ll obviously help survivability,” Mr. Von Schellwitz said. Still, he acknowledged that opening at half-capacity poses a financial risk.

Mr. Von Schellwitz said Alberta restaurants are taking appropriate measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to keep staff and customers safe.

The hospitality industry has been devastated by the COVID-19 restrictions. Restaurants were one of the first businesses ordered to close, and there are estimates that at least one in 10 won’t reopen. Out of the 150,000 employees in Alberta before the pandemic, 95,000 were laid off as of the end of March, a Restaurants Canada survey said.

There are no government aid packages directly aimed at the industry but restaurants have been able to take advantage of several programs, notably a commercial rent relief program that can reduce rent by 75 per cent for small businesses. There is also a wage subsidy program, which covers 75 per cent of an employee’s pay to a maximum of $847 a week.

Leslie Echino, who owns Blink Restaurant, Bar Annabelle and Annabelle’s Kitchen in Calgary, said the reduced capacity would make it difficult for restaurants to turn a profit. The profit margin for restaurants and bars is about 4 per cent, Ms. Echino said, citing Restaurants Canada figures, and added many establishments are now spending 30 per cent or more of their revenue on rent.

Ms. Echino’s restaurants have been significantly hurt by the pandemic, but she said she didn’t expect to open right away. While she hopes to get Bar Annabelle and Annabelle’s Kitchen running again eventually, Blink’s future is less certain, she said, as "I really think it doesn’t have a place in this new economy,” given the costs involved in running it.

Ms. Echino also said that the rent relief program, delivered as loans to landlords, can leave restaurants without assistance if their landlord isn’t eligible or chooses not to apply. The program covers 50 per cent of monthly rent through a forgivable loan if the landlord agrees to charge the tenant no more than 25 per cent of their usual rent.

She said she’s also worried about whether customers will return. “People will still be scared and our bills are all the same," Ms. Echino said.

Katy Ingraham, spokesperson for the Edmonton Independent Hospitality Community and a restaurant owner, is also worried that fear among customers has not had enough time to dissipate.

Ms. Ingraham said the sudden decision to reopen restaurants took some in the restaurant community by surprise, and there’s a reluctance to “be the first to open.” She’s worried restaurants could face backlash and wonders if opening is safe.

“We’ve been told by the health leaders in this province, in this country, that we are sacrificing livelihoods for lives,” Ms. Ingraham said. “It just seems like the switch was very quick from health legislations to economic decisions.”

Sylvia Cheverie, owner of Chartier restaurant in Beaumont, near Edmonton, said she feels it’s too soon to reopen traditional dine-in service and will instead continue focusing on takeout. Concerned about the health and safety of her employees, she said she’d need to see a reduction in community COVID-19 cases before she’d feel comfortable resuming business as usual.

While Ms. Cheverie also said she was worried about the financial effects of COVID-19 on the hospitality industry, she said this was not a new phenomenon.

“As far as profitability and sustainability goes, the restaurant industry had a lot problems and big issues before the pandemic,” she said.

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