VANCOUVER — This time a year ago, St. Augustine’s pub in East Vancouver was packed to capacity every night as patrons swarmed in to watch the Toronto Raptors’ historic NBA title run.
On Tuesday, as the pub reopened for the first time in over two months after closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the emptiness was apparent as a few dozen patrons gathered at tables meticulously spaced two metres apart.
Gone were sports fans packed tightly together at the bar and the throngs of people waiting outside for a table. Instead, servers anxiously gave patrons a wide berth as they delivered food and beer from a limited menu printed on paper and thrown out after each use. A host greeted patrons from behind a plexiglass shield while a pair of customers tentatively asked if the washroom was still open (it was) and their server explained it was credit and debit only.
This is the emerging new reality across Canada as restaurants and bars work to figure out when and how to reopen safely.
On Tuesday, B.C. entered “Phase 2” of its reopening plan, which allows for sit-down bars and restaurants, as well as other non-essential businesses like hair salons, to reopen if they choose. The province follows Alberta, which allowed restaurants to reopen on May 15 in most areas, and other provinces like Manitoba, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
“I want to reassure you that we would not be easing these restrictions if we did not feel we could do so safely,” B.C. chief medical officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said during a news conference Tuesday. “We can flatten our curve and safely reopen our province.”
Both Ontario and Quebec — which have been harder hit by the coronavirus pandemic — have plans to reopen their dine-in establishments in the coming weeks.
But how do you safely reopen a restaurant, a space notable for the big coronavirus no-nos: groups of people congregating, mouths opening and close contact?
I want to reassure you that we would not be easing these restrictions if we did not feel we could do so safely.B.C. chief medical officer Dr. Bonnie Henry
It involves a lot of decisions from both governments and business owners.
Both sets of guidelines include a restriction to 50 per cent capacity and spacing tables at least two metres apart. They also detail cleaning protocols, and the need for a restaurant to close and participate in contact tracing if a staff member or customer tests positive for COVID-19.
On Tuesday, Henry stressed that the new guidelines are just that. They aren’t orders. But health and safety inspectors will be descending upon workplaces to ensure social distancing guidelines are being followed and everything is up to snuff. And customers and workers who feel a workplace isn’t following the rules can report it to their local health authority.
At St. Augustine’s, that means pairs of colour-coded sanitizer bottles scattered around the restaurant. A big group of eight that comes in is split into two groups of four, per the health guidelines that groups are limited to six or fewer people.
While solutions like “bumper-boat” tables have gone viral, they aren’t realistic for many establishments. In reality, it’s likely going to look a lot more like the scene at St. Augustine’s — way fewer people, way less contact, and way more cleaning than before.
But some restaurant owners say even that’s a stretch. Gerad Coles says he’s willing to wait a little bit longer.
Coles is the founder and owner of Prairie Dog Brewing in Calgary, a brewery and full-service restaurant and bar. Like many other dine-in restaurants and bars, Prairie Dog has been doing delivery and pick-up services since mid-March.
But unlike many others, Coles says they don’t plan to reopen right away when they are allowed to on March 25 (Calgary’s reopening was pushed back a week later than the rest of Alberta due to the region’s particularly high case-count.)
Coles outlined his concerns in a May 19 blog post. He identified sanitizing dishes, accessing personal protective equipment, a poor customer experience, managing staff morale and the ability to actually make money as some of the complex issues restaurant owners face when reopening. And many of them have not been touched on by the province’s reopening guidelines released earlier this month.
“For us it just felt like, ‘wow, this is way too too soon,’” he told HuffPost. “We just didn’t feel like we had the information that we needed to confidently reopen and keep everyone and our staff safe.”
Coles cited mixed messaging on mask-wearing as a prime example. Under Alberta Health Services guidelines, staff are recommended to wear cloth or non-medical masks if unable to maintain physical distancing to protect customers. But there’s no requirement for customers to wear masks to protect staff.
For us it just felt like, 'wow, this is way too too soon.'Gerad Coles
“A cloth mask doesn’t do anything to protect the wearer,” he said. “It’s only to protect the other people around them.”
He said the financial and health risk if a customer or staff member does contract COVID-19 is huge. Many of his staff are immunocompromised or high risk, and there’s a financial cost to closing and reopening repeatedly.
“When an employee’s found to have COVID-19, the restaurant’s forced to close down for some period of time while they test the employees and figure out who’s got it and who doesn’t,” he said. “That closure period can cost the restaurant $40 to $80,000 in our case. We already closed once, we already spent that money, and we had to pull up a huge loan just to cover that.”
WATCH: 47 per cent of people say they’re likely to visit restaurants after reopening. Story continues below.
Coles says he hasn’t seen any assurance from the Alberta government that businesses will be financially covered if forced to close \for COVID-19 testing. Without that kind of support, he risks going under, or worse, staff feeling like they can’t disclose when they’re sick.
“It’s up in the air until we get some really good information from Alberta Health Services and have time to internally to strategize along with staff and figure out how we’re going to handle issues,” he said.
Since closing in mid-March and temporarily laying off two thirds of their staff, he says Prairie Dog has operated a skeleton crew to maintain delivery services over the past two months. And while delivery revenue has maxed out at around 50 per cent of their usual revenue — enough to make it worthwhile — he says it’s not sustainable and they want to reopen dine-in service soon, but safely.
“The only way that we’re able to stay open right now with the revenue we have is the government subsidies like the CEWS, where we’re able to subsidize 75 per cent of our employees’ wages,” he said. “So that’s helped a great deal, and then our utilities and some of our vendors have allowed us to defer payments of loans and leases.”
Coles said without the wage subsidy or deferred loans, the business would likely go under.
“It will just kill us. It’ll kill the business, and it’ll kill everyone’s jobs,” he said.
But while he wants to reopen and return to “normal” operations, Coles acknowledged that reopening safely will require a fundamental restructuring of how the business operates. And that will come with its own unique challenges, like the expectation for staff to enforce customers’ physical distancing.
It will just kill us. It’ll kill the business, and it’ll kill everyone’s jobs.Gerad Coles
“The guidelines for opening are great, but they don’t mention anything about what to do when customers are not following the rules and they’re putting our staff and other customers at risk,” he said. “Are we supposed to call 9-1-1 because someone’s standing too close to someone and they refuse to move like I don’t really. I’m not really sure what we’re supposed to do there, and I know that none of my staff want to have to do that. None of them want to be the police.”
So Coles says he’ll wait to reopen until they financially must, or there’s more clarity on what it looks like for them. But he said that he’s lucky Prairie Dog can afford to wait to reopen, since other restaurants and bars are pressured to reopen as soon as possible.
“Those guys don’t have a lot of options here so they’re gonna have to open,” he said. “And I just hope that the province is there to help them do it right.”
Also on HuffPost: