New Brunswick

Vaccine mandate creating 'challenges' for struggling restaurant industry, survey finds

From lockdowns to capacity limits, the restaurant industry has spent the past 18 months clawing its way through COVID-19 restrictions. Now, restaurant operators are adjusting to a new requirement: enforcing a proof-of-vaccination mandate.

In addition to losing customers, owners now have to 'police government policy,' Restaurants Canada says

Proof-of-vaccination is required to enter establishments such as restaurants, gyms, and movie theatres in New Brunswick. (Jon Collicott/CBC)

From lockdowns to capacity limits to social distancing, the restaurant industry has spent the past 18 months clawing its way through COVID-19 restrictions. 

Now, restaurant operators are adjusting to a new requirement: enforcing a proof-of-vaccination mandate.

Introduced in New Brunswick on Sept. 22 as cases surged to an all-time high, the proof-of-vaccination mandate is aimed at limiting spread among unvaccinated people and providing an incentive to get vaccinated.  

But some New Brunswick restaurateurs say it's also limiting their ability to do business.

"We've been beat up since day one with the Covid restrictions," said Mike Babineau, co-owner of four restaurants in Fredericton, including Rustico and The Happy Baker. 

Mike Babineau, co-owner of four restaurants in Fredericton, says he's seen business decline by 30 per cent since the implementation of the vaccine passport. (Jon Collicott/CBC)

He said business has dropped by 30 per cent at his establishments in comparison to other years around this time, and worries the industry can't handle any more losses.

"We had a pretty good summer," he said. "But, recently in the last month or so, it's really gone down with the Covid restrictions and the passports."

Nearly half of Canadian restaurants operating at a loss: survey

Across the country, restaurant operators are reporting similar crunches.

A survey conducted by Restaurants Canada this month found that 60 per cent of restaurant owners reported either slight or significant revenue loss due to vaccine mandates across the country. 

Forty-six per cent said they were operating at a loss. 

"The vaccine passport, while it's a great alternative to being closed and further restrictions, it really has created challenges for operators," said Luc Erjavec, vice-president of the Atlantic Canada division of Restaurants Canada. 

Luc Erjavec, Restaurant Canada’s vice-president for the Atlantic region, says restaurants need financial support from governments to say afloat. (Luc Erjavec)

In addition to losing customers, Erjavec said restaurants are having to police government policy, leading to confusion about where the mandate is coming from.

"We'd like to have some really strong messaging that this is a government policy." he said. 

CBC News reached out to the provincial government for clarity on the number of cases that were coming from restaurants prior to the mandate taking effect, but no numbers were provided. 

Department of Health spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said the vaccine mandate would be in place for the "foreseeable future."

Proof-of-vaccination mandate not the only hurdle

The proof-of-vaccination mandate may be the latest challenge restaurant operators are facing, but it isn't the only one.

The hospitality industry in Canada and the U.S. has been suffering a labour shortage for months, with many workers choosing to pursue different jobs after losing their employment during shutdowns. 

Babineau said restrictions are making it harder to offer employees stable work. 

"I realize a lot of people are leaving the industry and I don't blame them now," he said. 

Jennifer Somers, owner of Cheers Moncton, said the constant changes to operating rules have been a challenge.

Thanks to circuit-breaker restrictions, her restaurant saw more customers than usual over Thanksgiving weekend, but it has been a 'ghost town' at other times, she said.

"Every week, something changes and you're constantly adapting to the new rules," said Somers. 

My personal opinion is that the spike in cases has stopped people more than 'I have to have my vaccine,' because most of the people I know have the vaccine. - Chris Vair, owner of Big Tide Brewing

In Saint John, Big Tide Brewing owner Chris Vair said he's seen business decline as well.

But Vair thinks the rise in cases is more to blame than the vaccine mandate. 

"My personal opinion is that the spike in cases has stopped people more than 'I have to have my vaccine,' because most of the people I know have the vaccine," Vair said.

Restaurants have faced a challenging 18 months as the pandemic keeps customers away from their establishments. (Jon Collicott/CBC)

Babineau thinks the rise in cases is keeping some customers away as well. Looking to the future, he said he's concerned about what will happen if a booster is deemed necessary, given how long it took to get people the first two doses. 

"How long is it going to take to get the third vaccine out?" he said. 

Late Tuesday, Public Health announced the first booster doses would begin on Oct. 25, for health-care workers and for residents of First Nations communities who had their second dose at least six months ago.

In the meantime, Luc Erjavec of Restaurants Canada said, restaurant owners need help.

Erjavec said his organization hopes to see governments provide financial support to the industry as operators bear the added costs of enforcing mandates and continue to grapple with business decline. 

"We're nowhere close to recovering," said Erjavec. "We're still operating at a loss and we need some help to get back to the fourth-largest employer in New Brunswick." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nojoud Al Mallees is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick based in Fredericton. She can be reached at nojoud.al.mallees@cbc.ca and can be found on Twitter @nojoudalmallees.

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