Montreal

At Quebec reception halls, the party's still over, even as limits on capacity are loosened

It sounds like the plot of Footloose: you can enter the venue, but you can’t mingle and you can’t dance. That’s the reality Quebec’s reception hall owners are contending with as the government relaxes occupancy rules today.

Venue owners say weddings and other events are mostly being pushed to next year

When customers who have bookings at the east-end Montreal venue Le Châteaubriand find out about the public health restrictions, 'they just want to postpone or cancel,' says co-owner Pat Garippo. (Submitted by Pat Garippo/Le Chateaubriand)

It sounds like the plot of Footloose: you can enter the venue, but you can't mingle and you can't dance.

That's the reality Quebec's reception hall owners are contending with, even as the government relaxes occupancy rules today, increasing the number of people allowed in indoor venues from 50 to 250.

The issue, the owners say, is that physical distancing and face coverings do not make for a fun wedding, bat mitzvah or any other kind of event.

"We're still not going to be busy at all," said Pat Garippo, one of the owners of Le Châteaubriand, a reception hall in Montreal's east end. "The minute we tell the restrictions there are to people, people just want to postpone or cancel.

"The clients, they're just backing out. It's not a wedding. No one is going to have fun — it's a funeral."

'We are absolutely destroyed'

The Quebec government banned gatherings of more than 250 people in mid-March as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, and banned gatherings altogether a little over a week later. For event spaces, the past months have been devastating.

"We are absolutely destroyed," said Fred Paiement, who owns La Cabane, a sugar shack just north of Montreal. "It's been impossible to do business since the 15th of March."

Paiement said he makes around $2 million in revenue per year and has lost 90 per cent of that this year. Like Garippo, he said today's changes that would allow him to accommodate up to 250 people make no difference.

"Nobody wants to do a wedding with masks, without dancing, with the two-metre rule," he said. "It's very, very hard. All my jobs in 2020 moved to 2021."

Of the 80 or 90 weddings Paiement had booked this year, only two remain on the calendar.

"Our industry, we pushed everything to next year," Garippo said. "The minimal events we do have will not cover our costs. We need financial aid to survive — the whole industry."

The situation is so dire that Garippo, Paiement and a growing number of other reception hall and sugar shack owners have formed an association to lobby the government for help, with the assistance of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).

There are around 60 members so far, but Paiement said there are around 2,000 such businesses in the province.

A spokesperson for Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon says there are programs to help business owners, including an emergency assistance program for small and medium-sized businesses.

Reception halls and sugar shacks have largely been forgotten in the economic recovery, said Gopinath Jeyabalaratnam, a senior policy analyst at the CFIB.

"They need to pay rent, they need to pay fixed costs like hydro bills and municipal taxes even though they aren't getting any business."

Jeyabalaratnam said existing government programs — such as rent assistance and wage subsidies — have helped, but some are expiring and others are loans, which are adding to debt that the owners have already accumulated.

Paiement said he can make it to 2021, provided there are changes — like a vaccine — that will allow events to happen. But he said he has friends in the industry who say their mortgages are at risk.

Without help, he said, "probably many of us are going to close."

With files from Valeria Cori-Manocchio

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