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Barron: Pandemic hitting restaurants and bars hard

Grewing up in the restaurant business, I know first-hand the threat of an extended closure

The sense of frustration and helplessness amongst the restaurant and pub owners I talked to recently about having to close their dining rooms due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was almost palpable.

Almost all businesses have taken a hit over the last year as they faced mandatory shutdowns and then severe restrictions on how many customers are allowed in the stores when they were permitted to open, but food and liquor-serving establishments have had to face a disproportionate amount of hardships as the health crisis deepens, even as work to vaccinate the population continues at a rapid pace.

The three-week “circuit breaker”-style lock down that began on March 30, in which indoor dining at all restaurants and pubs in B.C. was suspended, has now been extended into late May, and possibly beyond, as COVID-19 continues its march through the province.

That decision came after new data released by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control suggested that restaurants and bars are a major source of new infections.

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To be sure, those in the industry face an uncertain future, at least in the short term. I grew up in the restaurant business; my family operated a number of them over the years, and I remember that we lived pretty much hand to mouth.

Thankfully, we did well and lived comfortable lives, but I don’t recall there ever being a big nest egg for the family that was built up over time to get us through bad times as the money seemed to go out as fast as it came in.

I can’t imagine a scenario in which we would have had to shut down our dining rooms for any extended period of time without facing financial disaster.

And it wasn’t just my family; it was also the many servers, cooks, dishwashers and other workers that depended on their incomes and livelihoods from the restaurants to pay their bills and feed their families.

I also don’t recall many of them having any sort of savings either that they could pay their bills out of during hard times until their financial situation improved, and I can’t imagine that situation has changed much for hospitality workers since those days.

There is, of course, employment insurance and other government programs designed to help people through the pandemic, but it’s not enough for many who were living pretty frugally anyway before COVID-19.

I met Dave Kral, owner of the Cobblestone Inn in Cobble Hill, a few days after the “three-week” lockdown was announced sitting in his large but empty dining room going over his books with a deep look of concern on his face.

He said it’s the second time that he has been forced to shut down his indoor dining area since the pandemic began, and he has had to lay off most of his 50-person staff.

Kral told me at the time that “there’s a ton of frustration” among everyone at the Cobblestone Inn as they waited for the province to decide on April 19 if they could reopen the dining room.

I can only imagine the anguish they all must have felt when Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced that indoor dining would continue to be banned until at least late May.

“It’s very hard to plan for the future when we don’t know what will happen,” Kral told me.

Not only does the Cobblestone Inn, and every other restaurant and pub in the province, have to try to survive until they can return to normal operations at some point down the road, they also must hope that their staff members, many of whom are integral to their businesses, have not been forced to move on to other jobs and locations due to financial necessity.

They might also have to contend with possible changes to consumer behaviour after the pandemic ends as many people will likely remain wary of gathering in large crowds in enclosed spaces for some time.

The hospitality industry was always a hard one for businesses and people to survive in, but the knocks it has taken over the past year may be death blows to many in it.

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