British Columbia

Restaurants eye 'soft' reopening and warn another hard close could shut doors for good

Restaurant and bar owners were offered a bit of hope Monday when provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry asked the industry to come up with innovative ideas to partially reopen in coming weeks, with physical distancing and no more than 50 patrons at a time.

'Psychologically, the fact that we are even able to talk about opening right now is very positive'

Metro Vancouver restaurants are trying to come up with a plan for a partial reopen that would pass muster with B.C. health officials in the next week. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Restaurant and bar owners are scrambling to come up with a plan to open again under strict guidelines, given the ongoing pandemic.

The restaurant industry was offered a bit of hope on Monday when provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry asked the industry to come up with innovative ideas to partially reopen in coming weeks, with physical distancing and no more than 50 patrons at a time.

This is part of a planned phased reanimation of the provincial economy, which the restaurant sector contributes $15 billion to each year.

Before the closure, many bars, clubs and dining rooms were open with reduced seating, spaced tables and limited menus. Now as the weather warms, there will be a focus on seating customers on patios or outdoors.

"I think there are lots of innovative ways that we can have in-restaurant dining that protects both the staff and people coming in," provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Monday. 

Best news in a long time

Food industry leaders are meeting over the next few days to concoct a plan to present to Henry within a week. Many in the 190,000-employee restaurant sector see this as a great opportunity.

"It's hope. It's real hope. Psychologically, the fact that we are even able to talk about opening right now is very positive. Now, there is some clear indication that there's hope and that's probably the best news we've had in a long time," said Ian Tostenson, president of the B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association.

The province is looking at ways to phase in a reopening of the economy by mid-May and how that will happen at restaurants is on the table. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Most restaurant workers were left unemployed in March after health officials ordered dining floors closed, allowing only takeout and delivery services.

But before that hope can become reality, the province's health officer must approve. On Monday, she said "limited" openings are possible, and challenged the industry to find ways to make it work.

"It's not going to be easy and it's not ideal either," said Tostenson.

He acknowledged that rebuilding consumer confidence will also be a challenge, and he expects there will have to be visible cleaning going on, with spray bottles and strict distancing, to show consumers it's safe to eat out again.

Emad Yacoub, the CEO of Glowbal Restaurant Group, which owns 10 restaurants in the Metro Vancouver area, said he's looking at all sorts of strategies employed in other cities, particularly Taipei, Taiwan, where restaurants have stayed open during the pandemic. 

Though the levels of hospitality and human contact will not be the same for some time, he's eager to get back to work.

"At least give us a chance to survive," Yacoub said. 

Some fear the cost of reopening, if it's just going to end in closure again, will bankrupt them.

If COVID-19 starts spreading more fiercely again as restrictions lift, a second closure is possible.

"Of course we want to reopen but not to close again. We got whispers that they want to do a "soft" open and then do another "hard" close. You might as well put a stake in our industry," said Karri Schuermans, part-owner of Chambar Restaurant in Vancouver.

It's a fear shared by Mark Brand, the owner and operator of Save-on Meats, as well as the Diamond in Gastown.

"We would not re-open until we could fully re-open."

For restaurants to mobilize to reopen is expensive, so their fear is another outbreak or closure would spell the end for many businesses.

It would cost Schuermans $140,000 to start up again and rehire staff to partially reopen.

"Imagine, if they close down again, then that money was essentially wasted, and we've dug a big debt hole," she said.

Schuermans said restaurants are hitting the point where they can't take on any more debt. If they start up, rent will be due. She said that any further debt will decimate the industry, and what's really needed is rent abatement.

"Restaurants are already trying to make the decision of whether we close our doors for good or try and bridge this," said Schuermans.

Brand says the consequences for the city could be dire in the face of a crumbling restaurant industry.

"We don't have a lot of rainy day plans in our industry," he said. "We're a community. We're very good friends. People don't enter this industry to [make money]… they're in it for the passion."

About the Author

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@CBC.ca @ybrend

With files from Lien Yeung, On The Coast

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