A spate of positive COVID tests in the restaurant business, on top of the latest round of social distancing restrictions ordering restaurants and other public commercial venues to revert back to 50 per cent capacity, has triggered a mini avalanche of temporary restaurant closures across the city.
But worse than that, industry veterans fear the timing of the latest restrictions — coming as it has during the busiest week of the year — will presage a spate of permanent closures that will slowly emerge in the traditionally slow months of January and February.
The fourth wave caused by the Omicron variant has struck a number of local establishments with positive tests among staff causing them to temporarily close and inspiring a new form of doom scrolling on social media where many establishments let their patrons know about their status.
“This could not have come at a worse time." – Steve Diubaldo, co–owner of the Handsome Daughter
"This could not have come at a worse time," said Steve Diubaldo, one of the owners of the Handsome Daughter, a live music venue on Sherbrook Street, in reference to their decision to close until at least next week after one of their staff members tested positive.
"Everyone was looking forward to finally being able to make some money because this is typically the busiest couple of weeks of the year," he said.
Instagram posts from King’s Head, La Roca, The Roost, Oxbow, Confusion Corner Drinks + Food and all the Leopold’s locations in the city ad others echo similar scenarios that have prompted temporary closures at all those establishments.
But there are some who believe that regardless of staff infections that have forced closures or their relative ability to continue to provide excellent dining experiences even at 50 per cent occupancy, the latest government order has devastated consumer confidence in dining out.
Scott McTaggart, the owner/operator of Fusion Grill on Academy Street runs a nimble, 12-table dining room with a small staff of seasoned professionals.
He said, "The announcement last Friday restricting occupancy to 50 per cent was not the issue. The issue is that consumer confidence went into the toilet. A half hour after the announcement we started getting calls from people cancelling reservations."
Restaurant and hotel staff have been on the blower all week encouraging patrons to come out.
But still, Shaun Jeffrey of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said, "Cancellation rates for holiday parties has been atrocious."
Jeffrey applauded the province for quickly coming to the table with some modest financial supports this week for affected business but believes its unfair that his industry has suffered the most grievous damage.
"By announcing the last round of restrictions the government was telling the public, whether they actually said it out loud or not, that the restaurant industry is unsafe and there is nothing further from the truth," he said.
And the added cruelty for the restaurant industry of having to forego vital holiday season earnings, is that retail stores are open and busy.
"It is brutal seeing the malls full," Jeffrey said. "It is such a gut punch at this time of the year, saying one industry is more safe than the other."
Some, like Diubaldo, said, "I can’t take it too personally or I’d go off the deep end. You’ve got to roll with the punches. That’s all we can do."
“I can’t take it too personally or I’d go off the deep end. You’ve got to roll with the punches. That’s all we can do.” – Steve Diubaldo
McTaggart’s operation, which has not been hit by any positive tests, dug in and re-jigged things once again.
He’d been having a very successful December, with patrons happy to be out and even finding that it was more possible to sell later seatings than is normally the case.
When the latest restrictions were announced that came into effect on Tuesday he and his chef quickly worked up New Year’s eve special, got it up on social media and has been taking orders for New Year’s take-out and filling up his limited seating capacity for the traditional big night out.
McTaggart acknowledges the quirkiness of his own personality — "I really enjoy the challenge" — but worries the constant re-vamping of operations and roller-coaster ride of uncertainty is going to take its toll on the industry.
"I think a lot of people are just going to say, ‘Why?’.” – Scott McTaggart, owner/operator of Fusion Grill
"I have been hearing about the level of weariness from operators across the country," said McTaggart who is on the board of directors of Restaurants Canada. "People are making the decision to hang on through Christmas, put some money in the bank and pay some bills and then take a look in January as to whether or not they want to do this again. I think a lot of people are just going to say, ‘Why?’ "
Jeffrey said his office is taking calls daily from members telling the association they are ceasing operation, temporarily or permanently.
He refuses to disclose the tally, but is not surprised.
"I made it very clear in the last round when we opened in September that if a fourth wave closure came around we would start seeing massive casualties. We are and we will," he said. "Going into January and February it will only be more. That is the sad reality."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.