Alberta restaurants, bars resigned to weathering third pandemic shutdown

Moments after Alberta’s premier announced stricter public health restrictions were returning to the province, Adam Stoyko was running through his mental checklist.

Owners warn of job losses, potential closures

Bodega Highlands is seen on a pre-pandemic night. Owner Christian Mena says he's resigned to the new on-again, off-again reality of the restaurant industry. (Photo by Dong Kim)

Moments after Alberta's premier announced stricter public health restrictions were returning to the province, Adam Stoyko was running through his mental checklist.

A co-owner of Edmonton's High Level Diner, Stoyko already knew he'd have to cancel a contract with restaurant cleaners, lay off some of the serving staff and change his menu plans to be takeout compatible.

It's the third time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that the Alberta government has told restaurants and bars they can't allow customers inside their businesses.

Fitness centres and gyms must also cancel any group classes or unsupervised workouts, and libraries will also close their doors to patrons.

Without these steps, and with the growth in highly contagious variants of concern, Alberta hospitals could be full by the end of May, Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday.

"It's too bad that it came to this," Stoyko said with a sigh on Tuesday. "It is what it is… it's just an extra headache. But, yeah. Everyone's safety is first."

Indoor dining at eateries and pubs must stop by Friday, according to the latest public health orders. Takeout and delivery are still allowed, and restaurants can host people from the same household at tables on patios.

Certain types of businesses — bars, restaurants, arts, recreation and fitness — are bearing the brunt of the "yo-yo effect" of public health restrictions coming and going, said Annie Dormuth, Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses provincial affairs director for Alberta.

Few have normal sales or are fully staffed, and more than half of hospitality businesses say they're now at risk of closing, Dormuth said.

On Tuesday, politicians gave no indication of how long the stricter measures will be in place.

Kenney said some spread of COVID-19 had been linked to patrons table hopping at restaurants, or travelling between bars. It's a comment some proprietors found disheartening.

In the absence of hard data on what settings have the greatest spread, some small businesses feel like scapegoats when COVID-19 cases begin to rise, Dormuth said.

She called on the province to move up the opening application date for the new Enhanced Covid-19 Business Benefit, and lower the thresholds for the grant program so more small businesses would qualify for aid.

Can't turn restaurants on like a light switch

At Sabor Portuguese restaurant in downtown Edmonton, owner Christian Mena says he's resigned to the new on-again, off-again reality of his industry.

"The reality is that we're going through this, the numbers are high, and they're only getting higher, I think it's a responsible thing to do," said Mena, who also owns the city's four Bodega restaurants.

SABOR Restaurant/BODEGA Tapas & Wine Bar Owners Chef Lino Oliveira and Christian Mena (Tweedy Studios)

The meals his restaurants make aren't designed for takeout, like a pizza or a hamburger. He says customers come for the experience. He imagines takeout sales might be as low as 10 per cent of what the restaurants would sell to dine-in customers.

Federal wage subsidies have been particularly important in helping businesses like his weather the pandemic, but he's worried that time is running out for those programs while the pandemic drags on.

"Independent restaurants are the heartbeat of the city, not a chain restaurant, so in my opinion, do everything you can to keep these places going," he said.

Mena wonders if Alberta people, and businesses, would be faring better, if the province had adopted a longer, stricter lockdown earlier on to halt the spread, rather than what he calls "half measures."

His frustration is echoed by Derek Moe, who owns Maddhatters - Eat Local lounge in Grande Prairie.

The board member with the Alberta Hospitality Association says businesses are "drowning" as revenues ebb and flow but fixed costs like rent, utilities and supplies pile up.

When Kenney appeared Tuesday afternoon to reluctantly announce a return of some restrictions, some of Moe's staff were in tears, he said.

The hospitality industry is shedding talented, passionate people who can't handle the employment uncertainty during the pandemic, he said. Retraining new workers every time restrictions are loosened costs businesses thousands of dollars a person, Moe said.

The cost of providing takeout meals has skyrocketed, he said. Demand has elevated the price of disposable meal containers and delivery services take a cut of the price. Patio dining in spring in the Prairies comes with unpredictable weather at best, he said.

He feels like Alberta restaurants and bars are no further ahead than they were on Day 1 of the pandemic — only now, with enormous debt loads. Rent and wage support programs have to continue for them to survive, he said. The province needs a better plan, he said.

"It's sad to say, but it's scary. We're not going to have restaurants. We're not going to have coffee shops. We're not going to have our favourite gym. We're not going to have a lot of  things here," he said.

Kenney said an assistance package is coming to help businesses weather this latest setback, but did not provide details Tuesday.

A committee led by Health Minister Tyler Shandro and populated with MLAs will also develop a plan for returning to normal as growing numbers of Albertans are vaccinated, he said.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.


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