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OPINION: B.C. Restaurant industry pleads for even-handed approach to legislation in COVID-19 times

"The survival of the BC restaurant industry is in the hands of the Public Health Office"
Empty restaurant. (via File photo)

On Sept. 8th, 2020 a verbal Public Health Order (PHO), issued by Dr. Bonnie Henry, directed the hospitality industry in B.C. to:

  • Close all nightclub and standalone banquet halls
  • Cease all liquor sales in restaurants, pubs and bars by 10 PM and close at 11 PM except if meal service continues. 
  • Reduce music or background sounds to be no louder than the volume of normal conversation.

In B.C., we have been fortunate to have an incremental re-opening process, which started on May 19th. The opening model currently allows for:

  • Maximum six people per table
  • Two metres between table or plexiglass separation
  • No table hopping

In these challenging times, operators are struggling to maintain profitability. Supports like the federal wage subsidy program, the rent relief program (marginally successful), provincial support for liquor delivery with food orders and wholesale liquor pricing have been essential to helping operators stay in business.

The recent order to restrict hours is a major economic concern to our industry, which represents close to 15,000 restaurants/pubs, employs over 190,000 people and generates over $14 billion in sales. 

Our industry was the first sector to take a proactive approach and write a re-opening plan, submitting it to the Province. That plan outlined an absolute commitment to assist the Provincial Government in our collective efforts to control COVID-19 and execute all relevant Public Health Orders. The vast majority of this industry not only invested thousands of dollars to ensure their operations, training and protocols aligned or exceed Public Health Orders, but also ensured that our actions reflected the responsibility to safeguard the health of our guests, employees and the general public. Just last week, Dr. Henry stated that “most restaurants in particular have been doing a very good job at keeping things under control… and people are doing the right thing.”

Clearly reducing transmission and exposure is at the core of the latest Public Health Orders and our industry understands this imperative. Our concern is that the broad-brush nature of the new order fails to separate the majority of responsible operators from those not so diligent or responsible as stated in our industry letter on September 10th, 2020 (submitted by the Business Technical Advisory Panel).

Ending liquor service at 10 pm regardless of the nature of the establishment or how it operates is particularly problematic. This order may catch some situations or locations where there is problem behaviour, but it will also catch a vastly higher number of situations where there is little risk of transmission and where everyone is complying with the rules. 

We are encouraging travel around B.C. as a means for economic recovery. If a couple travels to Whistler or Tofino for the weekend and wants to make a reservation for 9:30 pm, why should they be denied a quiet dinner with drinks when they arrive? Inter-provincial travel and off hours meals are essential to our industry survival.

In our view, it is simply unfair to treat moderate and responsible alcohol consumption as problematic in one place just because other people may be behaving irresponsibly in a completely different place and in different circumstances. We believe that the early closure of venues that have been operating irresponsibly will not end problematic consumption or behaviour – it will simply push it underground where there are no rules or restrictions in place and where there are no functional or practical enforcement mechanisms. Dr. Theresa Tam indicated this morning on CBC’s “The Current” that a high number of exposures is already happening at private events, this is likely to exacerbate these kinds of exposures. 

The economic effect of the PHO as indicated by our recent survey suggests:

  • Businesses are reporting a 20 per cent drop in revenue in the immediate days after the announcement. For many restaurants and bars, the last hour or two of service makes the difference between profit and loss. 
  • Reservations across all sectors are being cancelled after every PHO change. 
  • Fine dining restaurants across the province are cancelling their last dinner seating as they will not be able to provide the food and beverage pairing experience that guests expect resulting in a net loss of 25 per cent in daily sales and well as staff income. 
  • Craft breweries who incorporate foodservice as a primary part of their business model and stay open until midnight have reported that 10-20 per cent of their revenue is generated from sales after 10 pm. 
  • A restaurant group in the Interior indicated that it expects to lose between 20-65 per cent of its revenue depending upon location including a complete loss on holiday season business if the orders continue and expects to lay off 50 per cent of its staff in one location. 
  • Earlier closures negatively impact restaurant and pub employees, especially servers on the evening shift, whose hours will be reduced on average of 25 per cent, robbing them of much needed hours and the gratuity income that goes along with it. 

Over the last 48 hours, industry stakeholders asked their individual members for feedback on the effects of these orders on their revenue. So far, we are able to estimate that: 

  • For downtown Vancouver pubs (not night clubs), almost 50 per cent of their sales revenue is generated after 10 p.m. 
  • For urban pubs outside the city core, about 25 per cent of their sales revenue is generated after 10 p.m. 
  • For rural pubs, about 10 per cent of their sales revenue is generated after 10 p.m. 
  • In conclusion, we believe a more balanced PHO would:
  • Restore operation hours to 12 pm from 10 p.m.
  • Increase enforcement, impose fines and possible shut downs on non-compliant venues and customers.
  • Work with industry to share data on where we can apply pressure to fix PHO concerns, plan for the future and avoid permanent closures and further job losses.

The survival of the BC restaurant industry is in the hands of the Public Health Office. Our industry is ready to work alongside them to successfully drive consumer confidence and bring exceptional guest experiences by restaurants who are taking necessary precautions to make dining better in these extremely challenging times but we need an even-hand to ensure our success.

- Ian Tostenson is the CEO and President of The British Columbia Restaurant and Foodservices Association and a member of the Business Technical Advisory Panel (BTAP) from which some of this content was derived from the panel’s letter to government on September 11. 2020.

This article was originally published by Business in Vancouver.