Island restaurant industry feels COVID-19 rules unfair

Shutterstock

MANITOULIN – Like others in similar situations, several Manitoulin Island restaurant operators are furious that capacity limits remain in place for the hospitality industry while large sports venues and concert halls can operate free of capacity and physical distancing measures as long as vaccination requirements are enforced. 

“I’m furious too. When I saw that the province is allowing sports stadiums to be packed and I’m at 50 percent capacity and my business is hanging on by the skin of my teeth, it’s like a slap in the face,” stated Judith Martin, owner of The Codmother’s Restaurant in Gore Bay.

Restaurant owners launched a concerted campaign over the Thanksgiving long weekend to lift COVID-19 restrictions on their businesses to bring them in line with large sports venues and concert halls, which can now operate free of capacity and physical distancing measures as long as vaccination requirements are enforced.

Denise Callaghan, co-owner of the Anchor Inn in Little Current, told The Expositor, “I totally agree. It’s crazy.” She explained her restaurant has seating for 80 customers but is only allowed to have a capacity limit of 40 seated customers and is only using nine of 17 tales. 

“And our bar has not been open since COVID hit,” Ms. Callaghan told The Expositor. “But what really hacked me off is when I heard a customer was swearing and giving one of our waitresses a hard time because of the COVID regulations. They are not our rules, they are Ontario rules. But we are not willing to take a fine, lose our licence or put people out of work for not following the regulations.”

Angie Moggy, co-owner-operator of the Grill and Chill in Mindemoya said, “We are upset. It doesn’t seem fair for sure.” 

“We are still doing all takeout of food, but we hope to be able to open inside soon to customers,” said Ms. Moggy. 

CTV News reported on October 12, Ontario restaurateurs are expressing their frustration with the provincial government after a cabinet minister failed to attend a meeting to discuss capacity limits in the hospitality industry. 

Currently, while restaurants are not subject to capacity limits, they must maintain two metres of distance between tables which, the industry says, effectively limits the number of diners. 

Meanwhile, the Scotiabank Arena, which hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs home opener on October 13, welcomed nearly 20,000 fans without the need to sit several seats apart or maintain any form of distancing, CTV News reported.

“There’s 450,000 people employed in the restaurant businesses in Ontario,” Paul Bognar, CEO of Sir Corp., which owns Jack Astor’s Bar and Grill and Scaddabush Italian Kitchen and Bar told CP24. “We’ve been the hardest hit sector, you would think that would be a priority.” 

“I don’t understand it all,” stated Ms. Martin. Codmothers is currently only allowed to seat 29 people in its restaurant (being only at 50 percent capacity limit). “That’s a lot of business lost,” said Ms. Martin.

“When I heard what the province is doing, I said ‘are you kidding’,” stated Ms. Martin. “I could make more being a vendor at sporting events. I don’t understand any of this. Obviously, the big money makers are getting pampered and the little restaurants like ours get walked over. It just doesn’t make any sense at all.” “With our outside deck during the summer at least it helped bolster sales but with the weather not being conducive to sitting outside to eat now, it makes it that much more difficult,” said Ms. Martin. 

Ms. Martin noted, “a lot of other restaurants are seasonal but I’m trying to provide service to the town by opening year-round.” 

“I’ve struggled for the past two years because of the pandemic, so the action or lack of actions by the province is like a slap in the face,” stated Ms. Martin. 

John Sinopoli, the founder of Save Hospitality CA, said while the group hoped to meet with both Tourism and Culture minister Lisa MacLeod and health minister Christine Elliott on Tuesday of last week, they were faced with political staff instead who, they say, provided little insight into what the restaurant industry could expect, reported CTV News.

“They literally have no plan for us, that was the answer,” Mr. Sinopoli told CTV News Toronto. The restaurant industry has been trying to gauge, among other things, a timeframe for when restrictions would be eased, the benchmarks that would be used to lift restrictions and what information has been driving the government’s decision making.

“We’re trying to get to the bottom of either logic, the scientific data, the historical data, any data for the decision that was made that nobody can understand,” Mr. Bognar told CP24.

Without a plan, Mr. Sinopoli warned the government that it could soon be faced with civil disobedience with respect to the regulations and restrictions on indoor dining.

“The fate of Canada’s 90,000-plus restaurants is still uncertain,” said Restaurants Canada President and CEO Todd Barclay in a release. “Most have been losing money or barely breaking even since coming out of initial lockdown last year, and at least 10,000 establishments have already closed. The rest need government support to help them survive the fall and winter so they can continue feeding our recovery.”

According to survey data from Restaurants Canada, eight out of 10 restaurants have been operating at a loss or barely scraping by with a profit margin of two percent or less throughout the entire pandemic and nearly half of all foodservice businesses have been consistently losing money ever since the first wave of lockdowns ended last year. Seven out of 10 restaurant operators are still receiving the federal wage and/or rent subsidy and if these critical sources of support ended this month nearly 80 percent said they will struggle to keep existing staff or have to cut staff hours. More than half said they will struggle with hiring back staff/hiring new staff, the release said.