Disappointment and praise as Edmonton businesses adapt to new COVID-19 measures

Some in Edmonton's business community responded with relief as they prepared for at least three weeks under new mandatory public health measures, while others went beyond the province's orders, calling them "half measures" that would do little to limit the spread of the virus.

Some restaurants shutdown in-person dining, going beyond provincial orders

Chef Paul Shufelt, owner of Workshop Eatery and Woodshed Burgers, is closing indoor dine-in service at his restaurants, going beyond the government's mandated 25 per cent capacity limit. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

Chef Paul Shufelt says the Alberta government has left him in an impossible situation.

The Edmonton restaurateur says he was disappointed by the province's move to allow restaurants to remain open for dine-in service with albeit with new restrictions, measures announced Tuesday as a part of a suite of new public health orders. 

He doesn't want to lay off workers or miss out on the holiday rush at his four Edmonton establishments, but he says serving people inside while the pandemic hits record highs isn't an option either. 

"Rather than cutting things off, stopping and doing the right thing, we're doing half measures that are only prolonging the pain for small businesses, putting communities at risk and making life extremely difficult, if not impossible, for frontline workers that are trying to get ahead of this," he said.

Some in Edmonton's business community responded with relief and caution to the province's new public health orders, which largely opted for reduced capacity over outright closures. 

The Edmonton Chamber of Commerce tweeted its support, saying the "announcement strikes a good balance, ensuring that the strictest restrictions are placed on the most prevalent sources of new cases." 

But some doctors continue to call for stricter measures, noting that more than 80 per cent of the province's active cases are from untraced sources. As of Wednesday, there were 13,719 active COVID-19 cases in the province, with 355 people in hospital, including 71 patients in intensive care.

Shufelt will close Workshop Eatery and its sister establishments to indoor dine-in service Friday, pivoting the upscale restaurant to a casual BBQ takeout and delivery place. He says the business will be lucky to earn even a third of its typical holiday windfall. 

"That's just the reality that we're faced with right now. I mean right now it's not about sales or profitability, it's about doing the right thing for the community," he said. 

The move to close dine-in service will likely mean 15 staff are temporarily laid off.

'An evolving situation' 

The Common, a popular gastrolounge along 109th Street, will keep its dining room open for now, says co-owner Kyla Kazeil. She says the restaurant is already seating less than 25 per cent of its 150-person capacity and is offering discounts on its winter patio as a way to encourage people into the open air.

Along with capacity limits, the province said only people from the same household can dine together at restaurants. 

At The Common, people will be encouraged to make reservations by phone, Kazeil said, so staff can explain the new restrictions. The restaurant plans to launch a delivery option on the SkipTheDishes app this week.  

"I think it's good that businesses are having the option to set their own course on what they feel is safe and appropriate for their staff and their customers," she said. 

But if the measures prove too difficult to enforce or the business can find a way to sustain itself through takeout options, Kazeil says the restaurant will reconsider dine-in service. After laying off 50 workers in the spring and only hiring back 25 since reopening, Kazeil wants to avoid putting any more staff out of work.  

"It's an evolving situation," she said. "We're just weighing out and seeing if we can put all these to-go options in place."

Most retail stores can remain open at 25 per cent capacity, a relief to Kazeil who also co-owns the Bamboo Ballroom clothing store on Whyte Avenue. 

"I think a closure in independent retail would've been pretty devastating, especially in December, because December is the month to make up any losses that you've had through the year and get you ready for the next year," she said. 

Sylvia Cheverie announced her Chartier restaurant in Beaumont would close for dine-in service beginning Monday. She said worker safety was a "huge driving force" in the decision. Even with the new health measures, she says staff would still be interacting with dozens of unmasked customers every day.

She also felt the province has left restaurants to police the new public health orders, with staff in the difficult situation of ensuring a table is reserved for people from the same household. 

"You can only police so much and that part felt like just another added layer that we didn't feel 100 per cent comfortable with," she said. 

"I think a closure in independent retail would've been pretty devastating, especially in December.​​- Kyla Kazeil

The restaurant is considering its own in-house delivery service as a way to try to minimize layoffs by keeping staff as drivers. Cheverie is also looking into paying staff to provide some community service, such as picking up groceries or shovelling driveways.

It's a nerve-racking decision, she says, with the restaurant set to miss out on the holiday rush. 

"I would rather have a decreased revenue than know I'm contributing to a big problem," she said. 

Yes to casino, no to concerto

Amusement parks and casinos are among the businesses that can remain open under the 25 per cent capacity rule. River Cree Resort and Casino CEO Vik Mahajan praised the government's response, saying that while limiting capacity, halting table games and cancelling events may hurt its bottom line, the casino is happy to keep its doors open. 

"It keeps people employed and coming to work, and I think we'll be fine for these next 21 days," he said. "The cases have gone up, we have to get them down." 

After resuming in-person concerts at the Winspear Centre earlier this month, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra will postpone its scheduled concerts for the next three weeks after the government ordered concert venues to close.

The scaled-back orchestra held concerts limited to 100 attendees in the roughly 1,700-capacity hall. 

"We want everyone to gather safely. The music never stops," said Konstantine Kurelias, ESO spokesperson.

River Cree Casino will shutdown table games and events as part of Alberta's new mandatory public health measures. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

In the meantime, Kurelias says the orchestra will look to provide virtual offerings, including concerts and music history seminars.

And while some businesses are forced to close or adapt to the new measures, others say they're already operating to the now mandatory provincial benchmarks. Farmers' markets are limited to 25 per cent capacity, a measure Bountiful Market says it has been following since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Communications manager Elaine Doucette says the market, which hosts more than 100 local vendors, has been promoting delivery and curbside purchase options, but expects the latest public health orders will further limit customer traffic. The market sees about 5,000 customers every weekend, just half its target, says Doucette.

"Local shopping does support the economy and supports keeping farmers markets alive, and it's really important for them to show up if they can't at the market then get the delivery service," she said. 

With files from Jordan Omstead, Paige Parsons and Janice Johnston