Montreal bars and restaurants trying to cope with uptick in COVID-19 cases
Owners fear planned easing of measures will lead to even more infections, closures
Montreal's nightlife scene is suffering once again as a rise in COVID-19 cases appears to be affecting staffing at several businesses.
A handful of bars and restaurants have had to close temporarily, with several employees being infected at once. But industry leaders say too many establishments will disappear for good if the provincial government calls for dining rooms to close again.
At La Rockette, a bar on Saint-Denis Street in the Plateau-Mont-Royal neighbourhood, several staff members started getting sick last week, according to Jules Gauliard-Martineau, the general manager for the bar and the neighbouring Quai des Brumes bar and concert venue.
By Saturday, Gauliard-Martineau said he realized there wouldn't be enough healthy employees to keep La Rockette open. He's hoping it will be able to reopen in the next day or so.
"It's the same thing as in December: we had to close early because there wasn't enough staff to work. And it's the same scenario again, now," he said.
Gauliard-Martineau said the fact that the isolation period went down from 10 days to five since the last pandemic wave has made it easier to stay open when several employees at once become infected.
Still, he has, at times, had to navigate what he calls "a little game of Tetris with everyone's schedule" to avoid closing.
Fear of having to close for good
Martin Guimond, who owns Le Saint-Bock, another bar on Saint-Denis, says he'll have to shut down for good if Quebec closes bars again.
"We had to borrow $350,000 just to stay alive. It means that all that money, I will have to refund, plus interest," Guimond said.
"It will take me four, five, six or seven years and I still have my rent to pay. It's not cheaper because we have less customers."
There have been four to five COVID-19 cases among Guimond's employees in the past two weeks. Not enough to close the restaurant, but Guimond says he's extra cautious and asks his staff to stay home if they have any symptoms, in order to limit the spread of infection.
Service is slower, but customers understand, he said.
Guimond hopes the government won't lift mask mandates as planned in mid-April. He worries that if the government goes too far in removing restrictions, it will cause a bigger wave of infections that will lead to even worse restrictions for his business.
"I prefer my employees keep the mask all summer and stay open than to remove it and have to close for a week or more because all my employees could be sick with COVID," he said.
Le Saint-Bock was forced to close before the holidays as many staff members were infected by the highly contagious Omicron variant.
Guimond said the past two years have been so difficult on his business he has considered changing careers.
"It's hard. I don't want to live the same situation again," he said.
Gauliard-Martineau said he believes La Rockette and Quai des Brumes would be able to withstand having to close when too many employees are sick at once, but agrees the mask mandate should remain in place for a while still.
"The vast majority of my staff will have had it in a few weeks, so if it's just a peak to pass through I think we might be good," he said.
"If COVID is here to stay, I feel confident that we can make it work."
Owners can be responsible: association
The Quebec Restaurant Association says that instead of forcing restaurants to close, the province should leave the responsibility of protecting customers up to owners.
"We see that the restaurant industry wants to do their part … and will close their restaurants down if they need to do so," said Martin Vézina, the vice-president of governmental affairs for the association.
Montreal's public health department says it cannot track cases in restaurants and bars because it is only conducting and tracking PCR tests taken in health-care settings, long-term care and among the city's homeless population.
"Just because we are relaxing measures, it does not mean COVID-19 no longer exists," Danny Raymond, a spokesperson for Montreal public health, said in an email.
"Learning to live with COVID-19 also means continuing to exercise caution when frequenting public places."
Wednesday evening, Quebec's public health institute (INSPQ) confirmed the province is experiencing a sixth wave of the pandemic.
Based on reporting by Matt D'Amours