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Talia Syrie, owner of the Tallest Poppy, in her closed restaurant/bar in Winnipeg on April 17, 2020.JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

Restaurant and bar owners on the Prairies are pleading with governments for more support, arguing that loans and wage subsidies don’t go far enough to protect them from collapse during the COVID-19 pandemic. And even when they are allowed to reopen, they worry continued restrictions will cut into revenues for the foreseeable future.

The industry has been almost entirely shut down as part of broad efforts to keep people separated. Some establishments have been able to transition to takeout and delivery to make up a sliver of their lost revenues, but the industry has faced mass layoffs and questions about what will be left when restrictions are lifted.

Leslie Echino, the owner of Blink, Bar Annabelle and Annabelle’s Kitchen in Calgary, was in France at the end of February, as things were being shuttered there, and she saw the writing on the wall for what would happen to restaurants in Canada.

By the first week of March, her restaurants were doing a fraction of their normal sales. She closed both Blink and Bar Annabelle on March 12, and her third restaurant three days later.

“April 1 came really, really quickly,” says Ms. Echino, who is also a board member with Restaurants Canada. “When your new takeout model is only really 18 to 20 per cent of your gross revenue and fixed costs like rent, taxes and utilities remain the same, you’re still at a loss while you’re continuing to operate.”

To help advocate for hospitality businesses across Alberta, she, along with Brett Ireland, co-owner of Last Best Brewing and Distilling and Ernie Tsu, co-owner Trolley 5 Brewpub, formed the Alberta Hospitality Association. Since launching early last week, the initiative is meant to generate support from the provincial and federal governments.

While those governments haven’t targeted any aid packages specifically to the food industry, they have announced several programs designed to help small businesses such as bars and restaurants. Those include a wage subsidy of 75 per cent for businesses that experience a sudden drop in revenues; loan guarantees through the Business Development Bank of Canada and Export Development Canada; and interest-free loans through the Canada Emergency Business Account.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a commercial rent-relief program, which is expected to include loans to property owners to cover rent charges, although there were few details.

The Alberta government has offered deferrals on taxes and utility payments for businesses.

Ms. Echino noted the hospitality industry is the third-largest in Alberta and employs more 130,000 people – of which, an estimated three-quarters have been laid off.

“We want to help voice what it is we need now as a hospitality industry and how we can get the attention from our governments,” she said.

"The force majeure in lease agreements don’t cover this situation and business insurance doesn’t either. Most restaurant owners only have the means to operate in this current situation for a month longer at best.”

She said deferrals of utility bills and other monthly costs may be a temporary solution, but not realistic when a restaurant is faced with having to pay those costs eventually. The newly founded association, as well as other initiatives such as SaveHospitalityCA, will continue to lobby for further aid following the rent-relief plans that were announced Thursday.

James Ballantyne, who owns the popular Ship and Anchor pub in Calgary’s Beltline neighbourhood, warned that bars that rely primarily on alcohol sales may not be able to recover with the government support currently available. For example, if physical-distancing requirements continue after businesses are allowed to reopen, it would be impossible for bars to achieve the sales they had before the pandemic.

“It would be difficult to achieve [half of the] normal revenue under those conditions," he said. "What business can continue to operate on 50-per-cent revenue with many fixed costs that haven’t changed?”

He also argues that wage subsidies also won’t be adequate when there are so many other non-wage-related costs involved with a restaurant or bar.

There is no downside to providing help to hospitality. The money is going to flow directly through to retail landlords, suppliers and staff; all of whom need the help in their own right and are part of the economic fabric on which we all depend,” he says.

In Winnipeg, restaurateur Talia Syrie said community leaders were well ahead of their provincial government in terms of closing their doors or restricting business services. It was only April 1 that restaurants were told to stop sit-down dining completely,

The Tallest Poppy, a small restaurant that also focuses on supporting community art endeavours, is a restaurant that can’t afford to be temporarily closed, but Ms. Syrie did so weeks before the provincial mandate.

“I always say that tomorrow pays for today,” Ms. Syrie said.

She said she is looking at reopening to offer takeout, so she appreciates the option to tap into the federal loan programs.

“You don’t just turn on the lights, turn on the coffee maker and you’re off to the races. I have nothing. It’s money that will help restock our kitchen and pay my staff for three days to prep things until we are ready to open again,” she said. “[The loan] does make a difference.”

Ms. Syrie said she considers herself one of the lucky ones during these tumultuous times because of a good relationship with her landlord, but knows that the restaurant industry desperately needs rent relief.

“I don’t think there will ever be an ideal situation that suits every restaurateur. Saying what ‘a restaurant’ needs is like saying ‘a house’ or ‘a car’ … you can’t compare what I have to an Earls or a restaurant like Segovia or the bakery place down the road,” Ms. Syrie said. “We’re all like snowflakes.”

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