A long way from last call, and other challenges businesses face with a 'new normal'
From bars to restaurants, barbers and retailers, pandemic-related hurdles will continue
Friday was shaping up to be another ordinary day amid these extraordinary circumstances for Lisa Aronson.
The owner of the 5 Kings Restaurant in St. Stephen, N.B., made a meat run to the butcher in St. George before returning to help with the lunch orders. As the focus began to shift to dinner, Aronson received some good news.
Shortly after 2:30 p.m., about 120 kilometres northeast in Fredericton, the province's chief medical officer of health announced New Brunswick is ready to move into the next chapter of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Welcome to the new normal," Dr. Jennifer Russell said as New Brunswick government officials outlined their recovery plan with timelines for easing restrictions on businesses and public movement.
Within the next four weeks, restaurants will be allowed to reopen to the public as part of the second phase of the four-phase plan. Since mid-March, restaurants have been limited to takeout and delivery, creating enormous financial hardship.
Aronson said sales plummeted nearly 75 per cent and she had to lay off the entire staff, which consists of between 14 and 19 workers, depending on the season. The restaurant was forced to cut back on hours of operation.
It has since rehired six employees on a part-time basis as business rose slightly.
But she's looking forward to taking the chairs off the tables and welcoming back customers next month.
"The staff are excited for the opportunity and I am as well, and the regular customers keep saying that they can't wait," Aronson said. "Of course, we're going to take every precaution to make sure that we're handling it in a safe manner."
She expects the 5 Kings will reopen with 35 seats, half the regular number, and keep tables spaced two metres apart. Staff will also keep their distance as best they can when accepting orders and payment.
Physical distancing and barriers, health screenings, handwashing, surface cleaning and face coverings are all directives that will remain in place, Russell said.
Restrictions on provincial and international borders presents another wrinkle for the restaurant, and many other St. Stephen businesses.
Easing the border measures comes in Phase 3, which begins after two-to-four weeks without a new wave of COVID-19 cases, and the restriction shifts to a "strict controls per risk" approach rather than a blanket isolation order for anyone entering the province.
A full reopening of the border will come in Phase 4, the final stage, when there's a vaccination or herd immunity. That cuts off roughly 15 per cent of The 5 Kings' customer base, which crosses over from Calais and other parts of Maine.
"And we get the ones that stop here on their way to the cottages in Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island, so we also get that crowd, which we're probably going to miss out on," she said.
It's one of many realities still facing businesses preparing to reopen under the newly announced framework.
Stops and starts
Friday marked the sixth consecutive day without a new positive test in New Brunswick. The total remained at 118 confirmed cases, 11 of which were considered active, and the cumulative cases curve has flattened.
But, as they have in recent daily COVID-19 briefings, Premier Blaine Higgs and Russell reiterated on Friday the overwhelming likelihood new cases of the virus will be discovered when the province is reopened. Three unrelated outbreaks in a six-day period would trigger a new round of restrictions, Russell warned.
The recovery plan provides insight into the long-sought answer to the question of how this all ends, yet the fluidity of the situation presents uncertainty to some business owners.
Anne McShane, who owns and operates The Feel Good Store in Saint John, said small, family-owned businesses like hers are troubled by the potential for stops and starts.
She used the familiar 'hammer and dance' analogy — the hammer being the rigid shutdown and the dance being the mercurial nature of restrictions over the next weeks and months.
"Truthfully, the dance scares me and some others more than the hammer," McShane said prior to Friday's announcement. "You worry that's it's going to be somewhat in between the two, and you have to do both."
True to the uptown wellness shop's name, McShane carries a positive attitude, even when her sales were cut in half. She closed the store entirely a few days before the state of emergency was declared but has since embraced a curbside delivery model after being approached by loyal customers.
"You deal with things as they come up," she said.
Retail facilities also fall in the second phase, same as restaurants. Also included are daycares, camps and child-care centres, offices, campgrounds and all-terrain vehicle trails. Elective surgeries will begin again.
For some other businesses, it could be many weeks before they could reopen. In Phase 3 — after from two to four weeks without a new wave of cases — dentists, chiropractors, massage services, churches, gyms and other close-contact businesses will get the green light.
Hairstylists and barbers will also get their turn at this time, and it's no surprise to Chad McGarity that his barbershop isn't top of the list considering the hands-on nature of the job. He owns the Warehouse Barbershop in Fredericton, which opened in September.
McGarity scored a prime location with parking on Regent Street, one of the city's busiest streets, and the business, which rents chairs to self-employed barbers, was performing above expectations.
"But that came to a halt pretty quickly," said McGarity, who understandably didn't account for a global pandemic in his business plan.
The staff was sent home, and McGarity has been busy crunching the numbers, eager to learn of a return date.
"I have projected myself, pre-planning all bills and everything, until July at least," he said before the recovery plan was announced. "Of course, I'm hoping that's the worst-case scenario, but, at the end of the day, it is what it is."
He's comforted knowing the city has their backs. The customers have been "going absolutely nuts," asking for tips, buying merchandise, offering to pre-pay for haircuts, wanting an appointment on the day they open. He said the mountain of requests means they'll likely keep longer hours in the early days.
But it won't be just the length of the work day that will change; the working conditions are also expected to be different. The close-contact environment carries a greater risk of transmission than most operations — something that's been on McGarity's mind.
"I've scrubbed [the shop] down, personally, four times since we closed and we haven't had anybody in the doors," he said.
The employees will likely wear masks and gloves — on top of the standard sanitary practices in place at barbershops — plus there's signs urging the public to follow health guidelines and avoid putting staff at risk.
A long way from last call
On the other side of Fredericton's downtown, Nicolai Rigaux was busy filling orders on Friday afternoon. Graystone Brewing closed its taproom more than a month ago, but the bar manager said the rush for an end-of-week pint hasn't disappeared.
"People want to buy beer on a Friday," he said after concluding his delivery runs.
The Graystone taproom and patio would have been packed on any old sunny spring Friday, but Rigaux said physical distancing is impossible in that setting, and the brewery was quick to shutter that side of its business.
It will be a long time before bars will be permitted to open. The province's gradual return to normalcy doesn't offer a timeline for bars, gathering places and organized sports. The phased reopening document simply says "to be determined."
"With the knowledge we have today about the virus and how it spreads, it would not be appropriate for me to suggest we're in a position to do anything other than to prevent mass gatherings and ensure we didn't have a huge breakout in our community and in our province," Higgs said during Friday's announcement.
The premier said the timeline could shrink for those activities if new information is presented. The provincial plan only allows gatherings of 10 or fewer people in Phase 2 and 50 or fewer in Phase 3 before lifting the measure when there's a vaccine or herd immunity.
Russell said bars are in a separate category from restaurants because of the higher chance of mingling among patrons.
Rigaux said revenue lost from the taproom and keg sales to licensees has been offset in part by growth in sales at liquor and grocery stores and Graystone's delivery service.
The company spent a lot of time solving how it can function and comply with public health guidelines in the workplace, he said, and nobody will be upset by an extended shutdown of the taproom.
"As much as we would like to get back into that business, no one wants to be the reason anyone gets sick."