Omicron serving up more headaches for Alberta's beleaguered restaurant industry

Staff shortages are one of several converging issues the industry is dealing with, alongside public health restrictions and "operator fatigue."

Staff shortages, restrictions and 'operator fatigue' weighing on hospitality industry

Chartier, the French-Canadian restaurant in Beaumont, Alta., has closed its doors to indoor dining because of the impact of the fast-spreading Omicron variant of COVID-19. (Darren Cheverie/Chartier )

A surge of COVID-19 cases driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant has caused a new wave of uncertainty for Alberta's hospitality industry.

For Sylvia Cheverie, owner of the French-Canadian Chartier restaurant in Beaumont, just south of Edmonton, the increase in COVID-19 cases among staff and customers has forced the difficult decision to halt indoor dining. 

"We have a really small team, we have a really complicated menu," said Cheverie. "To lose, you know, even five or six team members — because they either have symptoms or have been diagnosed — that's a big impact."

The hospitality industry has been hit hard by the pandemic, with restrictions on indoor dining over the past 22 months. 

Since September, Chartier has been among the many Alberta restaurants operating under the government Restrictions Exemption Program, which allows them to offer indoor dining to patrons showing proof of vaccination, a negative COVID-19 test or a medical exemption.

The restaurants also have to abide by seating and capacity limits and must end liquor service at 11 p.m. 

"We have really diligent team members who uphold really high health standards and we've constantly adjusted our policies to make sure that we're not only meeting (Alberta Health Services) requirements but exceeding them," Cheverie said.

But Omicron has made it almost impossible for Chartier to continue operating as usual while its staff deals with illness and isolation requirements, she said.

"We can't work from home," Cheverie said, noting that the restaurant will continue to offer take-out service. "You cannot operate a business, a restaurant business, from home."

Converging issues

Staff shortages are one of several converging issues the industry is dealing with, alongside public health restrictions and "operator fatigue," according to James Rilett, a vice-president for Restaurants Canada.

The group's "best guess" is that 15 per cent of restaurants in Canada have shut down as a result of the pandemic. 

"What we're hearing most is just that [operators] need to take a mental health break," Rilett told CBC Manitoba. 

That rings true to Edmonton's Paul Shufelt, who said each wave of COVID-19 has brought new waves of stress for restaurant owners and operators.

"It takes a financial toll, but I think more than anything, it takes an emotional toll on our people — our staff, customers in general, their anxiety level and how safe are they to come out and dine," said Shufelt, owner and chef at Robert Spencer Hospitality, which operates several restaurants in the Edmonton area. 

"It's daunting."

Overwhelming uncertainty

On Wednesday, Northern Chicken announced on Twitter that it was pausing indoor dining until Jan. 3 to protect its staff and the community. 

Shufelt said he's noticed a diverse reaction from diners during this Omicron wave.

"We've had clients completely cancel events or even dinners, like absolutely last minute," he said. "And then on the other side, we've had people still clamouring to come in for lunch and dinner."

Darren McGeown, owner of Arcadia Brewing Co., says he senses more hesitancy about dining indoors.

"Everyone seems to be a little bit standoffish on coming out at the moment," said McGeown. "I feel like we're gonna be in a bad spot here for a couple of weeks, and hopefully we can get through this."

Maya Richmond, one of the owners of Edmonton's Padmanadi restaurant, fears that the longer-range impact of Omicron will see more people simply leave the industry. 

"A lot of people are running away from hospitality. They're looking for other stuff to do because it's so uncertain. It's so volatile," said Richmond.

"When all of this is over, there'll be no more staff for me to hire because nobody wants to do this."