British Columbia

Restaurants' hopes rest on patios, after B.C.'s COVID-19 rules ban indoor dining

B.C. restaurants were dealt another blow this week as officials banned indoor dining. The temporary measure leaves only take-out and patio options for the struggling businesses, but rapid patio expansion comes with its own challenges.

Patio permitting is up to municipalities, which have taken mixed approach since pandemic began

With indoor dining banned as part of an expanded set of public health rules, restaurants will need to rely on takeout and patio service to survive the next three weeks. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

When Hassib Sarwari learned on Monday that his South Surrey restaurant, Afghan Kitchen, would be forced to stop serving customers indoors, he sat on the ground for about two minutes trying to figure out how to deal with the news, and how to tell his staff.

Sarwari had just received piles of fresh produce and meat — with more on the way — as he prepared for the week ahead. That's food that will go to waste, unless he decides to give it away. Sarwari estimates the inventory he won't be able to use could be worth about $45,000.

On Monday, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced a so-called circuit breaker for at least three weeks as a way to try to get the quickly rising COVID-19 cases and variant spread under control. 

For bars and restaurants, the rules mean business is limited to take-out and patio service until April 19.

'Difficult decisions'

Afghan Kitchen can fit 65 customers with physical distancing, but the patio is very small — just six seats. Sarwari said patio customers, along with take-out, could bring in 25 to 30 per cent of recent sales, and payroll alone is about 25 per cent.

"I was thinking about my employees more than anything else," he said of the 23 people who work at the restaurant. "Obviously we'll have to make some difficult decisions and cut down on some of our staff members."

Boxes of fresh produce sit in the dining room at Afghan Kitchen in South Surrey, as owner Hassib Sarwari tries to figure out how his business will survive the next three weeks. (Hassib Sarwari)

At the Naked Café in Kelowna, owner Olivia Weber has been going through the same ordeal.

"We have a very small patio, so that's not the best. We're going to make it work and we are going to grind through this," said Weber Tuesday to Chris Walker, the host of CBC's Daybreak South.

"I mean we don't need as many people; we're definitely going to be laying some people off, for at least the next couple of weeks while this unfolds and we'll see what happens," she said.

Michael Colwill, managing partner of the Fernwood Inn and Fernwood Pizza in Victoria, said he will have to cut employee hours after recently increasing his staff in anticipation for the summer.

He said he will be able to maintain some business because his establishment has a patio, but that will only equate to about one-third of the customers Fernwood Pizza could accommodate pre-pandemic.

"We are getting left out high and dry here, and I would expect we are going to be compensated for that," said Colwill, speaking Tuesday on CBC's On The Island.

Maeghan Summers, the operations manager of the Noble Pig restaurant in downtown Kamloops, says she's lucky to have a big patio with 62 seats after having to close 132 indoor seats but sees others who aren't so lucky.

"It's heartbreaking what's happening in our industry right now where … if we don't have patio seating or have the ability to pivot our food and meal plans to to-go items, it really is a loss for us as a business," Summers said Wednesday to Shelley Joyce, the host of CBC's Daybreak Kamloops.

Tap the link below to hear Olivia Weber's interview on Daybreak South:

Olivia Weber, the owner of the Naked Cafe, speaks to Chris Walker about the change in public health orders. 0:00

Tap the link below to hear Michael Colwill's interview On The Island:

Gregor Craigie spoke with Michael Colwill, a managing partner of the Fernwood Inn and Fernwood Pizza, about what the new indoor dining restrictions mean for his business. Following that Gregor spoke with Pamela Charron, the Community Engagement Coordinator with the Retail Action Network, about how the "circuit-breaker" will affect small businesses. 12:14

Tap the link below to hear Maeghan Summers's interview on Daybreak Kamloops:

Maeghan Summers, the operation manager of the Noble Pig in Kamloops, speaks to Shelley Joyce about its restaurant's plan for the Easter weekend. 4:53

Province mulling additional relief measures

Ravi Kahlon, the minister of jobs, economy recovery and innovation, said Wednesday the premier has tasked his ministry with finding and possibly filling gaps in assistance programs for business owners and staff in the wake of the new restrictions.

He said existing federal and provincial programs may offer some people some relief, but that the province is "looking at additional measures".

Kahlon said he, like industry stakeholders, was caught off guard by the restrictions announced Monday.

"I had no idea this was coming," said Kahlon on CBC's The Early Edition on Wednesday.

Neither did Jessy Kramer, a Vancouver bartender who said he has been in the industry 10 years, and after working only a few months in 2020 due to the pandemic, was set to start a new job in the city this week.

He said Premier John Horgan is focusing on bringing down the virus numbers without recognizing the ramification those policies can have when it means so many people cannot pay their bills.

"I think that he really needs to understand that he is unleashnig a plague of depression, homelessness, addiction and he is not really doing anything to address it," said Kramer.

Patio programs

While the province sets the public health rules, it's largely municipalities that determine what sort of patios are allowed. Some, like Vancouver, made changes last year to allow street and parking lot space to be used. As a result, ad hoc patios have popped up all over. 

People drink and mingle on a patio in Gastown in July. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In Surrey, where Sarwari's restaurant operates, a program launched in June to allow public space to be used for patios and queue areas didn't get as much traction.

On Tuesday, Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum released a statement saying he would bring in a motion at the next council meeting to waive patio permit fees and fast-track the application process. 

The next meeting is April 12 — two weeks into the three-week circuit breaker period. The statement said fees would be on hold until then.

Linda Annis, Surrey city councillor, said the city needs to do much more, including cutting red tape to hasten the permit process and allowing restaurants to access the city's storefront enhancement grants, which would allow for 30 per cent of renovations up to $3,000.

"The $200 fee is just a small part of what it will cost the restaurants' owners to transition into outdoor dining," said Annis, adding she would like to see the patios last through to at least the winter without permit fees.

For Sarwari, the $200 permit fee is the least of his problems — he said he would happily pay that much in overtime for city staff to speed up the process.

He has seven parking stalls directly in front of his restaurant that he would like to convert to a patio. Sarwari figures he could safely fit 35 or 40 people in the area, perhaps under a tent.

Last year he found the patio application process too stressful to undertake, saying it looked as though it would take three or four months to complete, involving firefighters, engineers, city staff and the liquor board.

"This time around, we have no choice, because a couple more weeks and it will be very difficult to survive," said Sarwari.


Do you have more to add to this story? Email rafferty.baker@cbc.ca

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

With files from Daybreak South, Daybreak Kamloops and On The Island

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