'Out of options': Sask. restaurants closing, scrambling due to effects of COVID-19

Some restaurants in Saskatchewan are closing or are on the brink of closure as the province enters a fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Restaurants Canada calls for end to vaccine mandates, more support

The Mercury Cafe & Grill in Regina, Sask., is grappling with a drooping bottom line as the pandemic drags on. (Dayne Patterson/CBC News)

In November 2009, Chris Plumb sat on the tile floor of an empty building with a pencil, sketching his dreams for what would become The Mercury Cafe & Grill on a napkin. His promise to keep it open, whatever the cost, has stretched his finances thin during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He's come to a point that he might have to break his promise. He suggested The Mercury could close by the end of February.

"It could potentially mean bankruptcy for me," he said.

Plumb, the owner of the retro diner in Regina's Cathedral area, is one of many restaurants in Saskatchewan and across Canada who have faced the prospect of closing their doors because of pandemic impacts.

Chris Plumb, owner of The Mercury Cafe and Grill, is reluctant to close his doors, but is running out of option. (Dayne Patterson/CBC News)

"I've exhausted pretty much every other means: grants, loans from the bank, the federal loans," Plumb said. 

He made a call to customers as a last resort, hoping the support of patrons can help with another push through the pandemic.

While Saskatchewan lacks restrictions imposed in other provinces, he said vaccine passports have reduced the number of customers coming through the door and that others are nervous to go to restaurants.

Plumb said he's had to increase his prices, something he's been trying to avoid. But, he says about $20,000 could bail him out if this was the last wave of the pandemic.

"Twenty-grand and an absolute end is what needs to happen," Plumb said.

When the province imposed a lockdown early in the pandemic, government funding kept him afloat. For him, it's now too late for that. 

Call to end vaccine mandates

Ashlea Street, owner and operator of Streets Steakhouse and Bar in Moose Jaw, said their business is struggling to make ends meet with constantly rising supply costs and a reduction in customers.

"We feel like we're out of options and we have no voice," Street said. "No one knows what to do."

She said the business is losing about $40,000 a month and, at that rate, doesn't expect to survive beyond a few months.

She's frustrated by her loss of control over her restaurant's operations and the provincial government's half-measures. 

Street had emphasized either mandating vaccines everywhere, including businesses marked as essential, or not at all.

She said people can order essential items if they want to avoid COVID-19, or if they're unvaccinated and can't enter retailers or restaurants. 

"If you're going to mandate something, mandate it all across the board or don't mandate at all … all it's doing is putting businesses out and struggling to survive," she said, mentioning it affects the livelihood of their staff as well.

"COVID exists everywhere, doesn't matter where you are … so all it's doing is hurting these businesses."

Many of them are hanging on by their fingernails.- Mark von Schellwitz, Restaurants Canada

But, she prefers the government completely eliminate the mandates, and bring things back to normal.

"There's a whole lot of things that come with [the restrictions] and I think people don't realize the steps that we have to do to make sure that we are able to stay open … it's a lot," she said. 

Restaurants need changes, government help

Mark von Schellwitz, Restaurants Canada vice-president of Western Canada, is hoping for the same: to reopen without restrictions while avoiding a lockdown to bring in more customers.

"Many [businesses] are hanging on by their fingernails," he said. 

Schellwitz said a mix of cost increases, restrictions and staff shortages have hurt restaurants. More than half of Restaurant Canada's members are losing money each month, von Schellwitz said. 

Restaurants Canada is calling on the Saskatchewan government to implement true wholesale liquor pricing across the province and provide messaging to inform the public that dining is safe. 

It's also made several requests of the federal government to expand eligibility for programming, like the Local Lockdown Program and Tourism and Hospitality Program and provide more funding to aid Saskatchewan businesses.

Aleana Young, NDP job and economy critic, made a three-part proposal to the government for additional funding and changes to policy to aid struggling small businesses. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC News)

During a news conference on Tuesday, the NDP job and economy critic Aleana Young said the government wasn't even "doing the bare minimum" for small businesses. 

She proposed the Saskatchewan government extend the Wage and Rent Subsidy to small and medium business, provide funding to offset expenses associated with checking vaccination and, alongside Restaurants Canada, a cap on delivery fees.

In an emailed statement on behalf of Donna Harpauer, the government said it checks in with industry leaders and introduced the Hard-to-Fill Skills program that brings in foreign workers for industries facing "recruitment challenges." 

It also said that Saskatchewan businesses have experienced the least impact of any Canadian jurisdiction.

"Our plan is to grow the economy, while the NDP continue to call for lockdowns and criticize our government for actively engaging in global markets to strengthen our economy," it read, in part. 


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