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Coronavirus information
Coronavirus information
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People line up to order from a take-out window of a cafe and bakery that closed their seating due to concerns about the coronavirus, in Vancouver, on March 19, 2020.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

To eat is essential.

To eat in a restaurant and shout your order at a server, who must nearly bend over backward to maintain a two-arms'-length distance from your table, is not essential.

To grab a latte with friends, while trying not to cough in the direction of a minimum-wage-earning barista, is not essential.

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To drive across town, to wait 30 minutes in a staggered sidewalk lineup for a takeout burger from your favourite chef, is not essential.

Yet all this week, people across British Columbia have been clinging to these last vestiges of normalcy before Mayor Kennedy Stewart announced Friday all restaurants and bars in Vancouver would be permitted to provide only take-out service as of midnight.

The shut-down was inevitable: People have to stay home. You are not really helping anyone by going out to eat.

“It feels weird to still be open,” Brian Skinner, the chef co-owner of Frankie We Salute You, a small vegetarian restaurant in Kelowna, said on Thursday. “Especially when so many of our customers are older people.”

Mr. Skinner said he was torn in several directions, like many restaurateurs who were still operating this week in full compliance with provincial health regulations. As recently as Thursday, the province’s health officer said eating establishments could serve inside as long as there was room for people to maintain a safe distance.

On the one hand, Mr. Skinner felt obligated to serve his loyal clientele. “Kelowna is not like Vancouver,” where vegetarians have options, he said. “We’ve only been serving a few tables a day this week, and they’re all spaced far apart. But our customers come in beaming. They’re so happy to be here.”

On the other hand, he just wants to go home, hide from the world, dig in the garden and play with his kids.

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But perhaps most tellingly, he and his partner, Christina, are “terrified” that if they close the restaurant doors, they’ll never reopen. Right now, the cost of doing business in an industry with razor-thin margins feels insurmountable.

“We’re asking our landlord to cover the rent, but we still have to pay for garbage, parking, cleaning – all our occupancy costs. We’re hoping our lenders will postpone the principal on our loan, but we’ll probably still have to pay interest. We’re looking at $11,000 a month for bare costs. And we can’t even get through on the phone to the Business Development Bank of Canada office.”

Like many others, Mr. Skinner thought about switching to regular home delivery through a third-party app.

“Skip The Dishes is a gong show,” he said, referring to the 25-per-cent commission charged to restaurants, over and above the delivery fees charged to customers. “If your baseline costs are covered by your daily operations, then delivery is just the icing on the cake. But to pay the bills, it’s not an option.”

Mr. Skinner’s game plan, as of Thursday, was to begin delivering so-called Survival Packs, filled with bulk-container sauces and soups, to his regular customers. He is also hoping to start delivering curbside drop-offs for Kelowna General Hospital, where all in-house food operations have closed.

But even these alternatives are more complicated than they seem. “All our cooks jumped up to volunteer and said, ‘I’ll deliver!’ But if they get in an accident, they’re not covered by insurance. As business owners, we’re the only ones who can do the driving.”

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It’s a tough situation. So many diners want to help their favourite restaurants. But here’s the real thing: You cannot simply buy the world a Coke or a coffee or a banh mi sandwich. Your kumbaya intentions do not really make a difference to the restaurants that are in crisis. In many cases, you’re only putting those people – and yourself – in harm’s way.

I talked to so many restaurant owners this week. And it was the same story over and over again.

“It felt morally wrong,” said Gianmarco Colannino, the owner of Trans Am restaurant, which tried to offer pickup burgers this week from its tiny takeout operation, but eventually gave up because “we were barely making any money and the people who were coming here looked like they were so on edge.”

The situation has changed so fast. You cannot blame restaurant owners. They really want to do the right thing. But they are scrambling to adapt to a situation that changes almost hourly, without clear direction from any level of government.

Take breakingbreadnow.com, for example. Launched last Friday by a Vancouver publicist who is sincerely concerned about the health of her clients, the online initiative encouraged people to go to restaurants for specially priced dine-in menus.

By Monday, breakingbreadnow had pivoted to takeout or delivery.

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Everything is changing at a lightning pace. The world this week makes no sense from five days ago. All I know is that most restaurants want to do the right thing.

B.C’s Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, is respected. She should shut it all down across the province, as Mayor Stewart has done in Vancouver. There will be no coherency, no conformity, no peace of mind until that is done.

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