Restaurant owners choosing to shut doors as COVID-19 surges in Manitoba
'Pretty scary times ahead,' Exchange District restaurateur says
Some Winnipeg restaurateurs are voluntarily closing their doors in the wake of new COVID-19 health restrictions that cap capacity limits and cut liquor sales off at a 10 p.m. deadline.
And while they say they feel they made the right decision for the safety of their staff and patrons, there's worry they'll be caught in a Catch-22 when it comes to accessing government benefits.
"Everyone's just worried and we don't really know where to turn or what to do," said Miles Gould, owner of The Grove pub and restaurant on Stafford Street. "Because the government is saying they're offering benefits but they haven't made them available yet."
Gould told CBC on Tuesday his decision to close without a government order to do so could put him and his staff in an awkward position when applying for benefits because the restaurant wasn't technically forced to shut its doors.
"It's a tightrope and it's a hard decision to make on the one hand because I know people still have to pay their bills. On the other hand it was easy because we care about the safety of everyone," Gould said.
As of 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, the province's new public health rules mandated public gatherings to not exceed 50 per cent of the usual capacity of a space, or 250 people, whichever is less. It also put in place the curfew on alcohol sales. The orders are in place until at least Jan. 11.
Staff COVID-19 precautions 'forced the decision'
That's hamstrung many bar and restaurant operators who depend on holiday-season revenue to help them get through the traditionally slower sales months January through March.
"It's pretty scary times ahead," said Amsterdam Tea Room and Bar owner Mark Turner. Up until this week he said he and his staff were prepping for New Year's Eve.
He said he made the choice to close the Exchange District restaurant's doors this week after half his employees called him in a three-hour period to say they were getting COVID-19 tests.
"That meant everyone was out for at least a week, so that forced the decision on us," said Turner.
In the back of his mind he said he was pretty certain the government was going to order restaurants and bars to close when they announced Monday new health restrictions were coming.
Turner said the general consensus among other restaurant operators he's talked to and in the public is that it's likely better to close up shop for a bit and see what happens. He said he'd been calling patrons to cancel their reservations only to have them tell him they were going to call and cancel, he said.
"They also feel it's not safe to be out right now," said Turner. He added he'd have preferred to have a "circuit breaker" lockdown to deal with the current situation rather than dealing with uncertainty.
Tuesday, the province reported a record-high 825 new cases of COVID-19 and five more deaths due to the disease.
'Operator fatigue' a trend across Canada
A vice-president of national advocacy group Restaurants Canada told CBC eateries across the country are seeing converging trends as the pandemic rages on.
They include staff shortages, health restrictions impeding business viability and "operator fatigue," James Rilett said.
The group's "best guess" at this stage 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 said.
The full scope of the impact COVID-19 has had on the industry won't be clear for 18 months after the final health restrictions end, he said. Government must continue to help see it through the pandemic.
"We're going to need support for a long time," said Rilett. "We've done a lot of the heavy lifting to get us through this pandemic. We were always first closed, the longest to close. And so if we're doing the public good ... hopefully they'll continue to support us so that we get through this and see the other side."
Turner said he hopes government provides a support structure and more information so he's able to plan for what's ahead in the next month. He said he's confident his business will make it thanks to a strong customer base.
"We just keep going — we've managed to survive this long," Turner said. "Being shut down right now and making the right decisions now … it helps us in the long run."
With files from the CBC's Karen Pauls