Restaurants reeling from pandemic losses say Quebec government has abandoned them

Restaurant owners say the province' s loan program for businesses hit hard by the pandemic is difficult to access, and leaves them wondering if the government is sincere about its desire to help them.

The province's loan program seems to be 'a cruel joke' says restaurant owner

Restaurant owners say the Quebec government's loan program is full of red tape, and doesn't get them the help they need quickly enough. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

The province's offer to help struggling restaurant owners during what's been a disastrous year for their bottom lines contains quite a bit of red tape — enough to leave them feeling let down and even abandoned by the Quebec government.

"People actually travel to eat in Montreal, that's a known fact," said Dyan Solomon, owner of three restaurants in the city, including Un po di Più. 

"And yet, at this moment, we are being completely forgotten."

Since Oct. 1, restaurant dining rooms in red zones have been shut down, and they'll stay that way until at least Jan. 11, depriving them of vital revenue that often comes from a busy holiday season.

It's the second time restaurant dining rooms in Quebec have been forced to close during the pandemic.

Assistance from the province comes in the form of a loan of up to 50,000$, 80 per cent of which may not need to be repaid.

Here's the problem: restaurant owners say accessing the federal government's programs was quick and painless.

The provincial one? Not so much.

To access Quebec's loan program, owners need to share information such as cost forecasts and budget statements, something small businesses living month-to-month may not have handy.

"They don't have people working in their offices, they don't have bookkeepers, they don't have time to sit at a computer for three days in a row and fill out forms that are very complicated," said Solomon.

With restaurant dining rooms in Quebec being shut down twice during the pandemic, the year hasn't gone as well as Dyan Solomon would have hoped. (Submitted by Dyan Solomon)

Solomon has been denied once by the province already, and she has two more requests pending.

"I'm a positive person. I try not to look at this from a very sinister point of view, but I'm starting to feel like there is something going on that's deep and bizarre," she said. "Because the process was made very, very complicated. It does leave you wondering if it wasn't supposed to discourage small businesses from applying."

When comparing the federal programs to the provincial one, another restaurant owner referred to Quebec's process as one big, bureaucratic run-around.

"We are drowning right now in paperwork because we're trying to shift our money around, figure out how we're going to pay rent," said Nicole Turcotte, owner of Dinette Triple Crown. "So it just seems kind of like a cruel joke."

A spokesperson for the province's Economy Ministry acknowledged CBC's request for comment Friday, but has yet to respond.

Nicole Turcotte says applying for the federal government's business assistance programs was much easier than applying for Quebec's. (Pierre Fortin/CBC)

Lockdown measures taking a toll

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business claims to have received many complaints from small and medium-sized business owners.

"It is important that the government improves its program, reduces red tape," said François Vincent, vice-president of the CFIB's Quebec branch, adding that a complex loan process hurts small businesses in particular. 

As for restaurants, he says many owners don't believe shutting down is justified.

"It was [initially] the 28-day challenge," said Vincent, in reference to the first period of red-zone restrictions this fall. "Now, it's more than 50 days. Some businesses are asking themselves why are they supposed to shut down if they didn't see any [virus] propagation in my sector."

A group of protesters are calling for the province to loosen red-zone restrictions and allow restaurants to reopen. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC)

That sentiment was echoed Saturday, by a group of protesters in downtown Montreal.

Many of them work in the restaurant industry and were calling on the province to allow restaurants to reopen during the holidays, considering the exception for small indoor gatherings between Dec. 24 and Dec. 27.

According to Nick Pichereau, co-owner of McKibbin's Irish Pub in Vaudreuil-Dorion, holiday gatherings in restaurants would be much safer than get-togethers in private homes. 

"At home, once they lock the door, they will be touching, they will be hugging, they won't be wearing masks," Pichereau said.

With files from Elias Abboud