For the already battered and bruised B.C. hospitality industry, the annus horribilis of 2020 ended with a sucker punch to the gut that betrayed its trust and will, I fear, have devastating long-term consequences.
With barely 24 hours notice, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said on Wednesday afternoon that all liquor sales across the province would be banned from 8 p.m. on Thursday until 9 a.m. on Friday.
On New Year’s Eve, bars were forced close at 9 p.m. Restaurants serving full meals were allowed to remain open later, but no one – not even staff members – could take a sip of alcohol past 9 p.m.
The emergency order was announced without consultation or prior warning.
The bar and restaurant industry, which has bent over backward to comply with previous edicts and has done everything necessary to create safe spaces that have not been a significant source of COVID-19 transmissions, is outraged – justly so.
Their frustration is not just attributed to the massive inconvenience of having to shuffle reservations to accommodate patrons two hours earlier, deal with cancellations, cut staff and watch significant investments in food and liquor go to waste.
Their anger does not just stem from the huge financial loss in sales – estimated at $15,000 for the average restaurateur, according to Ian Tostenson, president of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association (BCRFA).
This isn’t just about the one-night hit, no matter how crucial that night might have been to the bottom line for restaurants that have run out of cash flow, are barely squeaking by and are losing money every day their doors stay open.
It’s not about the apparent lack of logic. By driving people out of monitored spaces with strict safety protocols, wasn’t the government encouraging household gatherings, which are by far the major source of transmission?
Or even the disrespectful 11th-hour timing. Why wasn’t this decision made a week or even one day earlier?
These are all valid reasons to be angry. But the biggest problem for the Provincial Health Officer and the government is that in one miscalculated fell swoop they have alienated an industry that has, up until now, been a co-operative ally.
Yes, we are extremely fortunate in B.C. to have restaurants that remain open for indoor dining. We are the envy of the country.
But the main reason we find ourselves in this enviable situation is because the restaurant industry got on board early and worked tirelessly at great expense to make it work.
In mid-March, before anyone even knew how bad the pandemic would get, many restaurants and bars offered and did indeed close down proactively.
By late spring, the BCRFA organized a task force and came up with a plan to reopen safely. It was the first industry group to do so.
Throughout the summer, industry leaders lobbied quietly behind closed doors to put pressure on the bad apples that weren’t following the rules.
In November, many continued to toe the line and jeopardized friendships even after the province ordered restaurants and bars to stop selling alcohol after 10 p.m.
That was a measure that made little sense to anyone, because provincial and private liquor stores remained open for an additional hour. All over the province, patrons poured out of bars and restaurants and headed straight to the liquor stores. There were lineups everywhere.
That’s when the mutual respect and trust in authority began to fray. Restaurants make most of their profits from liquor sales and those late hours really do make a difference.
All of a sudden, restaurants that had previously followed the rules began selling batched cocktails.
“The government has lost the plot,” one restaurant owner told me.
A few weeks later, when infections continued spiking, Dr. Henry issued the edict restricting social gatherings. The communication was a garbled, confusing mess, the rules were largely misunderstood and the messaging was full of contradictions.
As a result, restaurant reservations took a nosedive. According to a recent survey of 261 restaurant owners by the BCRFA, 56 per cent of operators have experienced a drop in revenue of at least 41 per cent since the new orders restricting activities were announced on Nov. 7; 82 per cent have reduced their opening hours or staffing.
The B.C. hospitality industry is now truly desperate and fed up. This latest edict, a low blow that came without warning, communication or respect, will likely erode the last shred of trust in authority.
I am afraid, based on several conversations that I’ve had with bar and restaurant owners, that it has created a situation in which they no longer co-operate with the government or comply with public-health orders. And that could pose serious danger for everyone.