Saskatoon

Saskatchewan's hard-pressed hospitality industry works to stay afloat during 4th wave

Following a tumultuous year of labour shortage and closures, the hospitality industry in Saskatchewan wants to remain open as case numbers climb.

Some businesses welcome the idea of vaccine passports

After a year and a half of labour shortages and closures, people working in the hospitality industry hope to remain open even if that means a system of vaccine passports has to be introduced. (Glenn Harper/Creative Commons)

Amid rising COVID-19 case numbers driven by the highly transmissible delta variant, restaurant and bar owners in Saskatchewan are hoping to continue to operate at full capacity.

Sunday marked the third day in a row that Saskatchewan has reported more than 200 cases in a day. The province surpassed 2,000 known active COVID-19 cases on Sunday.

It reported another 199 new cases on Monday. 

After a year-and-a-half of labour shortage and closures, businesses in the province long to remain open.

Vaccine passports can be the way

District Brewing Co. in Regina announced on Thursday it would close its table and patio services to keep its staff and customers safe.

Grant Frew, bar manager of Bushwakker Brewing in Regina, said he understands District's decision, but that it is not doable for his brewpub.

"They're a big brewery with their beer all over the province. But for somebody like us, most of the beer we produce is consumed in the restaurant. To restrict the seating in our restaurant would make things very fiscally challenging," Frew said.

During the first few of months of the pandemic, Bushwakker had to downsize from 55 employees to four and was closed for many weeks. It reopened with limited capacity on June 8 of last year.

After a busy summer, uncertainty looms on the horizon again. Frew said Bushwakker has a couple of events lined up for the remainder of the year, including live music performances for the fall. But all that can go out of the window. 

"I'm really concerned if they reintroduce physical distancing, we'll have to remove a number of tables and it simply won't be feasible for the venue to continue with the live music," he said.

Frew said he would welcome vaccine passports if it means the establishment can operate with full capacity.

"We have to keep the business alive and our employees working," he said.

"Over the course of this pandemic, we've learned to be nimble and open minded and be willing to change."

Jurisdictions like B.C. and Quebec have announced systems requiring proof of vaccination to access non-essential businesses. 

Starting Sept. 13, British Columbians will be required to prove they've had one dose of vaccine to enter restaurants, theatres and other non-essential businesses. B.C. will require the proof of two doses by Oct. 24. 

Quebec's system takes effect on Wednesday. People will have to show their passports — an electronic record of vaccination in the form of a quick response (QR) code —  to get into non-essential services ranging from gyms to zoos. 

B.C. and Quebec have seen jumps in COVID-19 vaccinations after instituting their passport systems. 

Jason Wosminity, who manages Saskatoon restaurant Las Palapas, said the vaccine uptick associated with passports is a motivation in itself.

"Anything to help this industry recover what we've lost would be fantastic. When B.C. instituted vaccine passports, their vaccine rates went up and that helps herd immunity and brings down the delta variants," Wosminity said.

Wosminity said he knows how important it is to stay safe, as his father was one of the first people to die in Saskatchewan from COVID-19.

"My dad didn't get a chance to have the vaccine. He would have been first in line to get it. We have the lowest vaccine rates in the country. It needs to change."

Wosminity said a "grey cloud of uncertainties" looms, even when the restaurant takes all measures to ensure safety of its staff and clientele. 

He welcomes the idea of vaccine passports, but doesn't want to alienate his customers. He is looking for guidance from the government.

"We don't want to turn away anybody's business. We've struggled so much as it is in the last year and a half," he said.

"We just need something mandated so that my young staff at the front desk, or myself, aren't policing anything without there being some backup behind the government to let us do that."

Saskatoon's Mayor Charlie Clark has been calling for a vaccine passport to protect against COVID-19, but Premier Scott Moe announced last week that his government will not implement a vaccine mandate and does not plan to introduce vaccine passports.

Industry seems divided on the issue

While B.C.'s hospitality industry has seemed to embrace the idea of staying open with vaccine passports, Jim Bence, president and CEO of Hospitality Saskatchewan, says the hospitality industry in Saskatchewan is divided.

"I can find pockets of operators that would be so on board and few that might not be appreciative of vaccine passports," Bence said.

Saskatchewan Hotel and Hospitality Association President and CEO Jim Bence says the industry operators are divided on vaccine passports and await government guidelines. (CBC)

Bence said most of his organization's members are adamant they must remain open, as another closure would be the "single biggest barrier to their survival."

"In the last 18 months, our industry has become very nimble. Some will move toward a vaccination and masking policy. We'll support any operator's decision that's good for their business," Bence said.

He said that the industry is also facing a labour shortage, as there are thousands of vacancies, including 597 available positions for cooks in the province. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pratyush Dayal is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon. He has previously written for the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, the Province and the Tyee. He holds a Master of Journalism degree from UBC and can be reached at pratyush.dayal@cbc.ca Twitter: @Pratyush_Dayal_

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