When B.C. restaurants reopen for dine-in business – possibly by June 1 – tables could be spaced two metres apart and booths will be separated by tall sheets of plexiglass.
Buffets, waiting areas and seating at bars or counters that aren’t sufficiently wide would remain closed, under the Blueprint for Reopening In-Restaurant Dining submitted last week to the provincial government by the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association.
The recommendations, subject to approval by WorkSafe BC, also call for floor decals around cash registers to ensure appropriate physical distancing, routine temperature checks for staff, safety inspection stickers in front windows, and protocols that give operators the right to refuse service to customers who display symptoms of COVID-19.
The rules will only apply to the restaurants that survive until June 1 and can afford to stock their fridges, rehire staff, train them in the new safety standards, buy plexiglass and operate at reduced capacity for the next 12 to 18 months – the timeline suggested by Premier John Horgan when he outlined B.C.'s relaunch plans last week.
According to a new survey by Restaurants Canada, seven out of 10 restaurants might not have the cash flow to pay vendors, rent and other expenses over the next three months,
The survey, which sampled 890 operators during the first week of May, shows that independent restaurants are being hit the hardest: at least one out of five independents are dealing with landlords who are not willing to provide rent relief, either through the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program or other arrangement. And nearly 20 per cent of the operators surveyed said they wouldn’t be able to pay rent for May.
Restaurants Canada is urging the provincial government to offer a working capital grant for restaurants and a moratorium on commercial lockouts.
“None of the government subsidies are helping right now, none of the supports have come through,” said Chambar restaurant owner Karri Green-Schuermans, who is frustrated by the BCRFA’s prioritization of health planning over financial assistance when many restaurants can’t afford to think about reopening yet.
Ms. Green-Schuermans points out that the applications for the federal government’s emergency wage-subsidy program (which will be be extended past June, it was announced Friday) weren’t even open until late April. Payments won’t start flowing for another four weeks, she said, which mean restaurateurs are currently paying workers out of pocket and accruing debt with little to no revenues coming in.
She also noted that the CECRA, which has been plagued with problems that has prompted some landlords not to apply, isn’t even open for applications at the moment.
“It would cost me $140,000 to rehire staff to partially reopen,” she said. “Imagine if there was another outbreak and we were closed down again? That would kill us. The safety protocols are important and there is a lot of good work being done. But that is not the priority for me or most independent restaurants right now.”
Another point of contention is that the Blueprint calls for 50-per-cent capacity in restaurants, above and beyond the 50-person cap on public gatherings currently mandated by the province’s chief medical officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. However, even this extra seating may not be economically viable for smaller restaurants.
Most restaurants need to operate at 60- to 80-per-cent capacity to break even, says Eric Pateman, the owner of Granville Island’s Edible Canada, which depends heavily on tourism. The 70-per-cent threshold has been echoed by restaurateurs around the world.
Mr. Pateman said he will remain closed for now. And if he doesn’t receive rate abatement, will have to close down for good.
“While I can understand the optimism based on B.C.’s ability to flatten the curve, the reality is that the hospitality and tourism sectors are not simply sectors that can be turned on and off," he said. "They are sectors that require a more tailored approach rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Just because we are able to open, doesn’t mean we can or should.”
BCRFA president and chief executive officer Ian Tostenson acknowledges that the committee was weighted towards chain restaurants, which is representative of the association’s membership, but says they made efforts to reach out to more than 200 restaurants.
“We saw no appreciable differences between the needs of smaller independents and chains," he said. "Everybody has to implement social distancing, whether you’re a Cactus Club or a coffee shop. The chains don’t have any less flexibility.”
What’s more, he says, this isn’t a plan designed to get restaurants open. “It’s a plan to provide measures that maximize public safety and increase consumer confidence,” he said.
Some restaurateurs will only open the locations that are economically viable. James Iranzad, an owner of Gooseneck Hospitality, says he will open his Bufala pizzerias and Bells & Whistles. The latter is actually being used as a test restaurant for safety demonstration videos that will be distributed by the BCRFA. But his more high-end establishment, Wildebeest, will continue making meals for social service agencies.
“We have no hope of opening for at least a year," he said. "Our costs are too high. We’re heavily reliant on tourism. And the food is not conducive to takeout. How many people are going to order bone luges to go?”
Others are excited about the opportunity to welcome customers back again and will try to eke whatever income they can from the combination of takeout, half-filled dining rooms while continuing their efforts to feed the disadvantaged and pushing for expanded patio capacity.
“Being down 50 per cent is a lot better than being down 90 per cent, which is where we’re at now," said Reuben Major, the co-owner of Belgard Kitchen and Havana Vancouver.
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