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Restaurants blindsided by public health orders

‘It was definitely a circuit breaker’ local cafe owner says
Jane Ivens of Fox and Hounds is scrambling to support staff, limit food waste and cancel beer orders across her three Central Island restaurants. (Cole Schisler photo)

On Monday, March 29, Dr. Bonnie Henry announced new measures to cut the spread of COVID-19, dubbed a ‘circuit-breaker’.

With COVID-19 cases reaching a new peak in British Columbia, the new restrictions prohibited indoor dining, but allow restaurants to remain open for take-out and patio dining only. The restrictions went into effect at midnight, March 30, and will remain in place for at least three weeks.

RELATED: B.C. stops indoor dining, fitness, religious service due to COVID-19 spike

Campbell McIntyre, who owns In the Beantime Cafe in Ladysmith, said he was shocked by the new restrictions.

“There was no notice. It didn’t really seem like things were headed that way. They seemed to be loosening restrictions, so it was a bit of a surprise when I heard that for sure,” he said.

McIntyre recently hired on new staff for In the Beantime and the Oyster Bay Cafe, which operates at the Ladysmith Community Marina, but he is now faced with having to lay staff off.

“We planned to open the Oyster Bay Cafe in May, but if this stays in effect we probably won’t open up. If we go back to the way we were with limited indoor seating we may look at opening up in July like we did last year,” McIntyre said.

RELATED: Ladysmith businesses carry on in the time of COVID-19

As for right now, McIntyre said his business has declined significantly.

“It was like the taps shut right off — it was definitely a circuit breaker.”

Jane Ivens, owner of Fox and Hounds pub in Ladysmith, was in the middle of receiving a food order when she heard about the new restrictions.

“Monday is our main product order day. We’ve just got a huge order in that would see us through on staple products for at least four or five days,” she said. “Although we’ll do take-out, there’s no way we’re going to use that volume of food.”

Ivens also owns the Coach and Horses in Nanaimo and the Black Goose Inn in Parksville. She’s feeling the impacts of new restrictions across all three of her restaurants.

A large part of Ivens’ business is serving draft beers to her customers — something that she cannot offer customers with takeout.

“I just contacted our international beer representative company because we always place beer orders on a Monday. As soon as I said the province we were in, she knew straight away, because all their beer orders have been cancelled,” Ivens said.

On top of that, Ivens has to change staff schedules at each of her three restaurants and reduce hours for staff. She said that three weeks isn’t long enough for her employees to apply for employment insurance and doesn’t give them the opportunity to find work elsewhere.

Ivens spent the day on Tuesday preparing the patio at Fox and Hounds. Both the Coach and Horses and the Black Goose Inn have ample patio space, but Ivens worries that the weather may not cooperate with the early imposed patio season.

The pub will remain open for outdoor dining and take-out, but without indoor dining, Ivens estimated that her business will lose 75 percent of its trade.

And Ivens isn’t the only restaurant owner who’s feeling those losses. Martin Tang is the owner of Appetit Food for Thought in downtown Ladysmith, and he estimated a 60 percent drop in business the day after the restrictions came into effect.

RELATED: Martin Tang’s thoughtful approach to food in downtown Ladysmith

Appetit shares Ladysmith’s most prominent patio on 1st Avenue with Zack’s Lounge, however, Tang worries that Vancouver Island’s fickle spring weather will keep customers from dining outside.

“It’s not patio weather at this point. Nobody wants to sit out with the wind and cold to enjoy a meal,” Tang said. “The customers understand where we’re at. But still, it’s really hard.”

Tang also expressed that, unlike the lockdown that occurred in spring 2020, restaurant workers don’t have the Canada Emergency Response Benefit to fall back on and other supports like the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy have been scaled back.

The Chronicle spoke with the owners of seven Ladysmith restaurants, none of them have experienced a COVID-19 exposure among their customers or staff.

Ladysmith Downtown Business Association president, Andrea Rosato-Taylor, said that local restaurants have done all they can to comply with public health orders and will continue to do so for the health of the community.

“As the marketing arm for our downtown businesses we are disappointed in this new restriction,” she said. ” The restaurants I have visited have an immaculate COVID-19 protocol in place and are doing everything possible to follow the public health orders to the letter.”

Rosato-Taylor called on the community to support local restaurants through gift cards, take-out and outdoor patio dining wherever possible.

President and CEO of the BC Food and Restaurant Association, Ian Tostenson echoed Rosato-Taylor’s message. Tostenson said that the new restrictions are ‘even more intense’ for the industry than the spring 2020 lockdowns because many owners were anticipating that restrictions would relax.

“Most people were saying that they were just starting to get the groove of their business back. This causes a major interruption because you need to lay off workers. There are 1,000s of people out of work right now that you hope you can find when it’s time to reopen. And people are getting tired of this — tired of reduced hours, tired of being laid off,” Tostenson said.

Tostenson said that if the restrictions last for longer than three weeks, the restaurant industry could be in real trouble.

Despite the fact that public health officials have repeatedly stated that indoor dining is safe with proper protocols, Tostenson said that the issue is more about restaurant staff becoming infected in certain regions around the province.

“There is a regionality. People are frustrated, like in Ladysmith we’re not having an issue. But in Vancouver, Fraser Valley and the Okanagan they are having issues.”

People aged 20-39 are the age cohort that is driving new COVID-19 infections in British Columbia. Tostenson said that that age group makes up a majority of restaurant staff and that restaurants in B.C. have had to shut down due to employees testing positive for COVID-19.

“We have argued that if we’ve got areas that are clearly isolated and doing a great job we need to recognize that, but [public health] worried that people will start travelling across boundaries to go to restaurants, so they said one rule fits all.”

Ultimately, the only way out of the restrictions is to lower the COVID case count in B.C., something that Tostenson is hopeful will happen sooner than later.

“It’s going to take a collective effort. All of us, it doesn’t matter what age you are, what can we do to stamp this down for three weeks so we can get the economy back?”

“Because more than three weeks will be almost unbearable.”

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