Although eating out - actually sitting down in a restaurant - was the highest priority item on the EngageMB restart survey, some Virden restaurants are uneasy about it and won’t be opening, saying it’s not practical. Others are preparing to open their dine-in service.
Seating for a meal is limited to 25 per cent capacity, diners must be of one family or household, everyone’s contact information is recorded and food cannot be served buffet style.
In licensed premises, the same rules apply and food must served. There’s also a limit of five per table, all from one household.
Most restaurants served their customers through pickup and delivery service since the pandemic was declared, until restrictions lifted with Restart MB, allowing 50 per cent capacity and it became practical to re-open. When Code Red was declared mid-November, dining rooms closed again and all food service returned to take-out/deliveries.
Now, cautious re-opening starts up Friday, and Boston Pizza located on the Highway #1 service road is planning to open, says Jillian Irvine.
A&W, located on the TransCanada, plans to re-open for dine-in on Sunday. Tammy Ho, owner of the franchise, says they have been strictly drive-through ever since the pandemic was declared. Even on the highway, she says business is down to 25 or 30 per cent of what it was before COVID; highway traffic is much less that it used to be and A&W laid off their part-time workers.
In downtown Virden, Chicken Chef is planning to be open on Saturday, Feb. 13. Bruce Barkley says the shut-down did hurt business, but they normally do a lot of take-out and that’s what kept the business going. Three more waitresses will be brought back to serve now.
Restaurants, indeed the entire hospitality industry, have been one of the hardest hit sectors due to COVID-19.
While some Virden restaurants are going forward with re-opening plans, others are not.
John Kim owner of the Central Hotel and the Countryside Motel has double pain as the owner of two hospitality businesses – eating and sleeping. “No one is travelling,” he says.
The Central has always been a coffee time gathering spot, and popular with the noon meal crowd in downtown Virden, but Kim has no plans to open with a 25 per cent capacity cap. Sorting out who’s a family and who is not, he says, “I cannot enforce it. It’s not realistic.”
Kim says, “I can understand the government’s position.” He adds, “They tried to help me, but there’s not enough money (in the funding).”
Between the hotel and the motel, Kim used to employ 35 people. Now, he’s down to three employees.
He feels landlocked with his family in Vancouver. Kim says he cannot afford the 14-day quarantine time required if he were to visit family in B.C.
He thinks the rules aren’t completely fair. “I like my hockey,” he says, but has questions. “If there’s so much concern over COVID variants,” how can hockey players travel the country?
Although he looks forward to full re-opening, he says, “I don’t know how you can recover from this one.”
At Gopher Creek Coffee Company, Paul Rhodes said decisively that and Manda are not planning to open the bistro to sit-down dining.
They’re hurting, but they’re keeping on. For Gopher Creek, the 25 per cent isn’t practical.
“I feel that the opening isn’t very beneficial… I agree with the head doctor,” Rhodes said of the Chief Medical Officer’s concern to minimize people’s exposure within “tight, closed spaces.”
Gopher Creek has limited seating, but they have always specialized in the unique and Rhodes is sticking with what’s working, for now. Their takeout menu includes artisan cup cakes, interesting coffees and teas and ‘take and bake’ lasagnes ranging in flavours - beef, four-cheeses, and chicken-based dishes – watch out for the jalapeno.
T’s Dining & Lounge is also not opening right away.
“I think we’ll just hold of for a little while,” says the owner of Virden’s fine dining restaurant. “The rules around, only people from same household …” Jackie Tough’s voice trails off for a moment before she finishes, “People want to go and meet people who they don’t live with. The rules prohibit that.”
In the heart of historic downtown, T’s cozy lounge in pre-pandemic days, would often fill with noon-hour patrons, often co-workers. The upper floor dining room was a great place for an intimate lunch or for a large table of friends to meet for noon or evening meals.
Tough says now, “At 25 per cent capacity, I don’t know if it will be busy enough to bring staff in.”
“It’s not the same, we miss our customers, we miss the rest of our staff,” says Tough, adding, “At least we still have the opportunity to make some money.” She points out that hairdressers and gyms were completely shut for months.
T’s staff now consists of just two servers plus a cook - no dishwashers. “I’m leery about getting staff back and then having to lay them off again.”
Like many other restaurants, they are in a holding pattern. They know how to do what’s been working – meal pick-ups and deliveries. Community support has kept them going and Tough says, “I’m really touched by the great support.”
Proprietors told the Empire-Advance that if you had never operated a restaurant, you might not think of the details that make a 25 per cent opening neither fish nor fowl – and impractical.
Restaurants face uncertainty about how to police the rules, with hefty fines if you make a mis-step. That’s chilling for small businesses.