Mohamad Fakih is the founder and CEO of Paramount Fine Foods.
What a relentlessly challenging year 2020 has been.
Recently, many Canadians have settled in for a further month-long lockdown. No doubt other measures are going to have to be added in the days to come, if we are going to beat this current COVID-19 wave. After all, we all want to keep Canadians healthy and be in the best position possible to enjoy some time with our families over the holiday season – though this is appearing less and less likely.
But that has been devastating for businesses, particularly restaurants, who aren’t able to serve on premises. My own company is going to get through to the other side of this, but I know there are many in the restaurant sector that will not be as fortunate. Sadly, you have probably noticed this in your own neighbourhood; every day, people are closing down restaurants that they’ve poured their hearts and souls into because they just can’t make it all work. It’s heartbreaking.
Restaurants hold a special place in people’s hearts. It is where we enjoy family time, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and other celebrations. It’s where we go to catch up with friends, go on dates – and maybe even propose or make important announcements. Restaurants are where we experience some of our most memorable moments in life, and so restauranteurs have to be happy, positive people who can provide customers with a great experience. We don’t just specialize in food – we specialize in memories.
We hire and train our staffs to succeed in doing just that. We love providing people their first jobs, whether they are young people or newcomers to the country; in restaurants, they get to bring their unique talents and learn important skills they will use for the rest of their lives. We employ tens of thousands of people, shape the streets on which we operate, contribute to city life through our culture and the taxes we pay, and contribute to our communities by supporting local sports teams and charities.
And now we are hurting – a lot. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has warned that as many as 60 per cent of restaurants could fail this year unless there is more assistance that is up to the task.
Here in Ontario, the provincial government’s latest shutdown seems unavoidable, given the huge increase in the number of cases every day. We all understand that we must do everything needed to avoid our health care system being totally overwhelmed, leading to even more death and debilitating long-term illness.
Restaurants have shown we are willing to play our part in controlling the virus. We have invested a lot of money in our operations to try to adapt to a disease that attacks people where we meet each other. We’ve put contact-tracing systems in place, as requested, for every single diner – though we couldn’t help but note that governments didn’t ask other industries and retailers to do same.
Sometimes the approach has felt unfair and arbitrary, leading to us feel singled out. And it didn’t seem to work, at least not as part of such a narrow set of measures: In the 28 days that indoor dining was banned, COVID-19 cases still skyrocketed. But the rules massively hurt restaurants, their employees and their bottom lines.
Governments have the responsibility of helping Canadians survive the pandemic, but that must include small-business owners and their livelihoods. The federal government has spent a lot of money to do so; now they must accelerate new programs to prevent a long and fatal delay between announcement and money being received. Last week, at last, the web portal for the new but inadequate rent subsidy opened – but that came months after the initial inoperable program expired.
We are now at the point of this crisis where assistance programs should be tailored to the particular needs of sectors that are in the most trouble. The government’s fall economic statement recognized this, but it’s not enough, I expect, to prevent many more businesses from closing down. A new loan program isn’t what hard-hit sectors such as restaurants will find useful; those that are struggling to survive are already highly leveraged, with so much debt added over the past nine months that they can’t afford to borrow more when they have very little or no cash flow and do not know what the future will hold.
The Ontario government should be doing more. At the very least, they must show all the science-based decision-making behind the frankly blunt measures they are imposing, so we can get behind them; if their explanations are opaque or don’t make sense, we will lose confidence in their ability to manage the crisis.
Ontario has also not spent the money it promised to support the businesses it ordered shut down – sometimes with less than a day’s notice. More than six weeks ago, the province announced $300-million to help affected businesses with expenses. Then they doubled that amount. But details of how this program will work have only emerged recently, and no money has flowed yet. And it should be said that Ontario has done much less to help businesses compared with other hard-hit provinces, such as B.C. and Quebec.
We understand that businesses may need to close for the time being. But if governments are going to enforce that, we need adequate and timely support. That’s the only way we’ll be able to get through to the other side of it all together.
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