Quebec restaurants facing uncertain future due to COVID-19 restrictions

About 175,000 food service-industry jobs have been lost in Quebec since the crisis began. Some restaurants have found ways to stay afloat, offering take-out meals. Others worry that staying open at all is too much of a risk of spreading the virus.

Two-thirds of Quebec service-industry workers have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, association says

Dinette Triple Crown, a restaurant in Montreal's Little Italy that serves southern comfort food, decided to close due to COVID-19 on March 16. Submitted by Nicole Turcotte

Two weeks ago, Nicole Turcotte, the owner of Dinette Triple Crown, gathered together her employees in the kitchen of her restaurant in Montreal's Little Italy to help her make a tough decision. Should the diner remain open, despite growing signs that COVID-19 was spreading fast in the Montreal area?

She and her 18 staff agreed it wasn't a good idea. They decided the risk of contracting or spreading the novel coronavirus was too high: most employees use public transit to get to work, and serving takeout "wasn't an option."

"People were terrified," Turcotte said. "They were scared of contracting or of passing it on."

Dinette Triple Crown closed its doors on March 16.

Restaurants remain on the Quebec government's list of essential services that are allowed to stay open during the COVID-19 lockdown, for takeout only.

Many have found ways to stay afloat by offering delivery service and thinning out menu options to increase efficiency.

Poincaré, a restaurant in Chinatown, laid off about a dozen workers. Now it is canning gourmet meals and selling them online.

"The revenue and the business that we're seeing now with our online store is actually pretty OK, but it's not enough to pay ourselves to work," said owner Jeremiah Bullied.

People 'still need to be fed'

The restaurant industry has taken a major hit. According to Restaurants Canada, a national service industry association, up to 175,000 service-industry jobs in Quebec have been lost since the crisis began — about two-thirds of the industry's workforce.

Restaurants are essential services because many people right now depend on them, especially seniors and people quarantined after returning from travel, said David Lefebvre, the association's vice-president of federal and Quebec affairs.

"They still need to be fed, and they cannot go to the grocery store, so the food service [industry] definitely has a place," Lefebvre said.

The association is praising the government's decision to allow restaurants to remain open. It says that means its members can continue to make some revenue while the economy is essentially shut down.

"This is something that's helped a little bit to limit the blowback," said Lefebvre.

Still, he says, the association expects about 10 per cent of the province's restaurants to go under due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Poincaré, a restaurant in Montreal's Chinatown, is now canning and selling its meals online. Submitted by Jeremiah Bullied

Dinette Triple Crown's Turcotte says the profit margin from takeout services is too slim to expect restaurants to stay above water. She wants restaurants to be taken off the essential services list, to help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

"[Staying open] conflicts with the idea that we're all supposed to be staying home," she said.

Still, Turcotte understands some restaurants will remain open because they simply can't afford to close.

Measures in place to help business owners

The restaurant owner said it helps that some municipalities, including Montreal, Laval and Quebec City, have decided to defer property taxes for the time being.

The federal government has also put in place measures that will help the food industry. Many restaurants will qualify for small-business loans of $40,000, of which 25 per cent will be forgiven once the loan is repaid.

As well, the federal government is offering a 75 per cent wage subsidy over a period of three months. Any business that can prove its profits are down 30 per cent compared to last year is eligible.

Ottawa is also offering an emergency response benefit of $2,000 for up to 15 weeks to workers who are self-isolating and who are not eligible for employment insurance. People can apply starting April 6.

Quebec is funnelling its emergency money for businesses into existing programs, with Investissement Québec making available $2.5 billion in loans.

For now, Turcotte says her restaurant will remain closed. With numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases soaring, she's going to wait to see how things evolve.

"There was a bit of a rough last few days in Quebec with the numbers coming out, so we can only assume that the rest of the week is going to be the same."

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