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Restaurants brace for ‘circuit breaker’ impacts as tourist season approaches

Indoor service at eateries, pubs, bars prohibited until April 19

Molly’s Reach co-owner Tim Bedford was at his restaurant on March 29 sorting through $4,000-worth of inventory delivered that morning.

“I had just finished putting away all that stuff and organizing it and getting everything ready – and then I got the notice,” he said.

Bedford, along with the estimated 174,000 people directly employed in B.C.’s restaurant industry, were thrust into a new reality this week after provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry responded to a surge in COVID-19 cases with a three-week “circuit breaker” lockdown, intended to slow transmission, which has surpassed 800 daily cases since mid-March.

Included in the announcement was the new order that starting midnight March 30 until April 19, indoor service at restaurants, pubs and bars is prohibited. Patio dining and takeout is still permitted.

The announcement comes just as restaurants were readying themselves for the Easter long weekend – typically the first busy weekend as tourist season kicks into gear on the Sunshine Coast.

Less than five per cent of business at Molly’s comes from takeout, since the restaurant is a tourist attraction in its own right thanks to its ties to the hit television franchise, The Beachcombers.

With the new restrictions and a pivot to patio, said Bedford, “I have no idea what to expect.”

Bedford and his partner Stephanie Heins own and operate Drift Café in Gibsons and opened Molly’s Reach Restaurant on Feb. 24 following more than two months of renovations after purchasing the business with another Sunshine Coast couple.

Included with the renovations was the conversion of half their patio space to install a takeout window. They were waiting for warmer weather to complete the finishing touches. “Now we’re going to be forced to open it, starting tomorrow,” said Bedford on March 30. As for the grand opening scheduled for April – it’s on the backburner.

Full-time staff are staying on shift to overhaul and establish a new system, part-time staff were cut for a week, while staff at Drift are bracing for reduced hours.

Sechelt-based restaurant owner Scarlet Osborne, who is advocating to both the provincial and federal government on behalf of new businesses that aren’t eligible for the same breadth of grants and subsidies as those with a longer track record, is also bracing for the impact of a switch to patio and takeout.

“This came completely out of the blue,” she said. Her restaurant, El Segundo, had just made three full-time hires in anticipation of a busy spring. Now she’s telling staff to prepare for reduced shifts.

As with Molly’s, Osborne markets El Segundo as a destination restaurant, so sales for takeout also make up less than five per cent of revenue.

“Until yesterday, we’ve been a lot more optimistic about spring coming and so on, but yesterday just demonstrates how much we’re still on a knife’s edge,” said Osborne.

While the provincial government has adjusted some eligibility criteria to open its Small and Medium Sized Business Recovery Grant to new businesses like hers, the money hasn’t arrived yet.

Still, business was looking up. Next week, for the first time, the owners were expecting to pay staff without having to dip into their personal finances, but the restrictions have erased that prospect. “We’re back down to square one,” she said.

More than one restaurant operator noted the springtime “circuit breaker” lockdown announced March 29 feels like déjà vu. Last year restrictions came into effect just as tourism season was getting started. And just like last year, tourism is expected to exceed normal. Sunshine Coast Tourism executive director Paul Kamon told Sechelt council earlier this month to prepare for a “groundhog summer.”

Gibsons Chamber of Commerce executive director Chris Nicholls said his organization is hearing that many accommodation providers are being “deluged” with booking inquiries, including about deposits, refunds and cancellations. “People are trying to manage the risk,” he said.

His chamber hasn’t established a formal response to the new measures, but he told Coast Reporter rising debt, a slowdown in customer traffic and declines in revenue “are now impacting [businesses] severely and we have seen closures.”

John Henderson, Sechelt Chamber chair, said their group is launching a contest to encourage those who are able to order takeout three days a week and post images on their Facebook page – all in an effort to keep business going.

Heavy-handed

The chamber, which was scheduled to meet as a board on April 1, said they will be formalizing a response, but in the meantime, he’s heard from restaurant owners who say the restrictions are too heavy-handed and shouldn’t be applied provincewide.

He also hopes local governments will get creative with rules around patio seating, or will establish tents for people to use as dining spaces downtown.

Due to the Coast’s relatively lower case counts, with six or fewer cases reported weekly since the end of January, Henderson says the Sunshine Coast should be treated differently than other Vancouver Coastal Health regions.

In Pender Harbour, which depends heavily on tourism, Painted Boat Resort operator Walter Kohli is looking at the restrictions differently.

He has dealt with SARS, dengue fever and other crises during his time managing resorts in Southeast Asia.

The resort’s restaurant opened mid-March and as with last year, shut down about two weeks later.

As an eligible business, federal and provincial financial support helped Kohli meet payroll, and essential professions such as BC Hydro workers needing accommodation brought in some revenue over winter, but all weddings and corporate events are postponed until next year – cutting into the resort’s bottom line.

He has also slashed active marketing as the province continues advising against non-essential travel.

But in 2020 many visitors discovered the Sunshine Coast as a getaway place, including during the off-season, said Kohli, and he predicts that thanks to that exposure, a new era of year-round visitors could be arriving.

“If we lose a little bit in the short term but keep everybody healthy, and demonstrate to the public that we are really careful here on the Sunshine Coast, we are going to recuperate the money,” he said.

“Short term, if we are not careful, we could lose lives.”

As for Molly’s co-owner Tim Bedford, he sees the new restrictions as a way of taking the glamour out of travel, but he would have preferred the province to clamp down before spring break to prevent a surge – forcing restaurants, especially new ones, into another precarious situation.

For now, he hopes people will heed restrictions, prevent spread and keep businesses open.

“We do 70 per cent of our revenue in about three months [in Lower Gibsons],” said Bedford. If restaurants stay closed in April but can open for the rest of the season, he added, “that could allow a lot of businesses to still make it.”

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