Nfld. & Labrador

St. John's bar owners fear 'bleeding slowly to death' from COVID-19 restrictions

Alert Level 2 is here and bars can now open, but some worry the regulations won't make it worth it.

Alert Level 2 caps occupancy at 50%, with no dancing or karaoke

George Street was full of trucks and cars on Wednesday, an unusual sight for the pedestrian-only street, as bar owners prepared for Thursday's move to Alert Level 2. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Alert Level 2 is here, and with it a welcome easing of health restrictions for many business owners — but some people in the bar scene worry the regulations won't make it worth opening at all.

"I think it's sad that some of our establishment members are in a position where they're feeling like opening up is something they have to triple-think about, [and] the actual benefit of doing so," said Don-E Coady, the marketing and communication lead for the George Street Association.

In a release early Wednesday, the association said its members had "great concerns" about the regulations imposed by the provincial government, which "may result in devastating outcomes."

The province released guidelines for restaurants and bars just 48 hours ahead of Thursday's move to Level 2, leaving bars scrambling to figure out how to comply.

Bars must operate at 50 per cent capacity, as restaurants have been doing since they were allowed to open at Level 3. Bars cannot have more than two musicians on stage at a time, and loud music is discouraged because it encourages close talking.

Don-E Coady is the communications and marketing director for the George Street Association in St. John's. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Dancing is off the table, and karaoke is also a no-no, meaning Karaoke Kops on George Street is out of luck.

Coady said the regulations could be disastrous for some of the long-serving pubs and clubs on the famous George Street drag, and that's not good enough.

"We have a responsibility to continue to offer the amenities and the cultural installation that this entertainment district has provided for years," he said.

Half-capacity hurts

Brenda O'Reilly owns three establishments in downtown St. John's — Yellowbelly, O'Reilly's and Mussels on the Corner — and would normally be employing about 200 people this time of year.

Instead, she has a skeleton crew of 50 staff members to try to keep costs manageable.

"We need to open because we're bleeding slowly to death here," she said. "We were closed for three months, plus having to pay our overhead with no revenues."

Brenda O'Reilly, a bar and restaurant owner in St. John's, is concerned the regulations on bars and restaurants are going to cause some to close. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

The federal wage subsidy was a blessing, O'Reilly said, but if it isn't continued throughout the pandemic she said a lot of places will be closing up shop for good.

O'Reilly said another struggle is trying to meet the physical-distancing protocols and reaching 50 per cent capacity. She said most places downtown simply don't have enough space to come close to half occupancy.

A pair of O'Reilly's businesses opened earlier this month when restaurants were given the green light. She said the first weekend was kind of like a honeymoon, but interest has waned slightly since.

City councillor Debbie Hanlon, who is the municipal representative on the Downtown St. John's board, said it's important people stick to their word and support local businesses right now.

Debbie Hanlon is a councillor-at-large for the City of St. John's, and the council's rep for downtown businesses. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

"There's never been a time in history that downtown St. John's has needed people so much," Hanlon said. "They need their support more now than ever before."

While Alert Level 2 has just been enacted, the regulations it entails don't appear to be changing any time soon, and Hanlon said that's making business owners nervous.

"The regulations are strict and they're wondering how they are going to survive," she said.

Newfoundland and Labrador hasn't had a new positive case of COVID-19 in 27 days as of Wednesday, and has been free of any known cases for a week.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

with files from The St. John's Morning Show and Jeremy Eaton

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