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Leslie Echino, owner of Annabelle's Kitchen, at her patio in Calgary, May 5, 2021.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Leslie Echino spent $50,000 for a roof and vinyl siding for the patio at her Calgary restaurant, Annabelle’s Kitchen, a space that could accommodate more than two dozen diners. But instead of being filled with guests, the patio will stay empty and Ms. Echino has been forced to lay off staff for the fourth time since the start of the pandemic after the provincial government announced increased public-health measures last week that prohibit all in-person dining, including on patios.

The province banned indoor dining in April in the face of increasing COVID-19 cases, but initially carved out an exception for patios, as long as diners seated together were all from the same household. That pushed some restaurants to invest in new outdoor spaces.

The latest restrictions shutting down patios, which took effect last Sunday at midnight, has prompted complaints from the hospitality sector and demands for the government to come up with more support for restaurants while also compensating them for their losses, including money spent on patios.

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At the start of the pandemic, Ms. Echino had 48 employees. Now, she employs three people full-time and six part-time. “I worry that we are losing our young workforce in Alberta, and what will happen to our downtown core,” she said.

Calgary pastor, two rodeo organizers to appear in court, charged with organizing illegal gatherings

COVID-19 patients are filling up Alberta’s hospitals

Alberta currently has the highest infection rates in North America and an active case rate more than twice the national figure. The government has not said specifically how long the current measures will last or how quickly things will re-open if COVID-19 infections come down.

The Alberta government launched a grant program for small businesses which has provided up to $30,000 for those that saw declines in revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest grant, announced earlier this year, offers up to $10,000 for businesses that had at least a 30 per cent decline in revenue, with other qualifying factors.

Justin Brattinga, spokesperson for Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation Doug Schweitzer, said the grant program was expanded last month to support businesses impacted by the third wave. He said that amounts to $1-billion in direct support for small businesses.

“We will continue to engage with the Canadian Federation for Independent Businesses, business owners and other stakeholders to gain input and assess the potential need for program changes or further supports,” he said in a statement.

Benjamin Leon, co-owner of the Dandy Brewing Co. in Calgary’s Inglewood neighbourhood, said he spent $10,000 over the last few months building a patio for the brewery, which offers dine-in service. He agreed that the new public-health measures are necessary, but he said they have also put his business in a precarious position.

“We’re constantly trying to roll the dice on where we spend our money to get the best return in the pandemic,” he said.

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He criticized the provincial government for not stepping in with enough support for businesses like his. With rigid guidelines for grants, some businesses are slipping through the cracks, he added.

Matt Pinch, president and CEO of hospitality management company Leo’s Group, which just opened a new Leopold’s Tavern location in Edmonton, said there’s no support for businesses without a previous operating history, leaving recently opened restaurants and bars in the lurch.

On Friday, Mr. Pinch received a letter from the City of Calgary instructing him to remove the temporary patio at the Leopold’s location there to allow for on-street parking and loading zones – yet “another blow” over the course of the pandemic, he said.

“We’re investing time, energy and real valuable dollars right now as our businesses are struggling,” he said. “For a patio space to be taken away, it’s frustrating.”

City of Calgary spokesperson Sherri Zickefoose said previously approved temporary patio permits will still be valid once the lockdown is lifted.

Doug Hamilton, co-founder and CEO of Inner City Brewing in Calgary, said he has spent a “fair amount” of money on lumber to improve his patio, which will also include a shipping container provided by the local business improvement area.

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Mr. Hamilton said he understands the need for the new health measures but added, “It’s hard when you put money out and you can’t utilize [the patio] for three weeks or longer.”

He also had to downsize his staff due to the outdoor dining shutdown.

“[My staff] are family. Every time they have to go without shifts for three days, or three weeks, it impacts their life.”

Opposition NDP critic Deron Bilous said Premier Jason Kenney promised to give restaurant owners advance warning before introducing new measures and accused the government of instead giving businesses “false hope” that encouraged them to invest more money into patios and other ways to stay viable.

The NDP is pressing the government to subsidize restaurant and bar owners 75 per cent of the cost for renovations and expansions, up to $10,000. The party also wants an increase in the small business grant and broader eligibility requirements, as well as a cap on food delivery fees, relief for utility bills and a ban on commercial evictions until the end of the third wave.

“We want these businesses to reopen in a strong position when the pandemic is over,” Mr. Bilous said.

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Ernie Tsu, president of the Alberta Hospitality Association and co-owner of the Trolley 5 pub in Calgary, said more targeted supports for “industries that have been locked down the hardest” are needed.

The association is asking the government for increased support to cover utilities and wages, a full retroactive property-tax subsidy, and “full compensation for sunk costs of patios.”

Cherie Klassen, executive director of the Old Strathcona Business Association in Edmonton, said some businesses might not survive the lockdown without a thriving patio season. “[The current help] is not sufficient,” she said.

Ms. Klassen is a member of the Alberta BIA Alliance, representing over 30 business improvement areas across the province, which wrote a letter to Premier Kenney and his cabinet calling for financial relief for all small businesses impacted by the new restrictions.

With razor-thin profit margins in the restaurant industry during the pandemic, the group expressed concern about restaurants that had invested heavily in their outdoor spaces. “Our dining establishments have been hard-hit during this pandemic and while most have adapted, their ongoing survival is not assured,” the letter reads.

“We’re not just commercial business districts,” Ms. Klassen said, adding she hopes Albertans will continue supporting local eateries by ordering takeout and return to their favourite spots once the lockdown ends. “We’re cultural hubs where people come and gather.”

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