Over the past couple of years, we have seen the damages of COVID-19 in many different industries, some more than others, and are still seeing the severe effects of this pandemic. One of these industries is the restaurant business, specifically the locally owned restaurants, of which Niagara-on-the-Lake has many.
On Friday, the province moved to Step 3 of recovery, which allows for indoor dining, with no limits on the number of patrons per table. Physical distancing and other restrictions will remain in effect. The decision comes in response to the number of vaccinations that have been administered, and continuing improvements in the number of daily cases, hospitalizations and intensive care admissions.
In the past 17 months, the pandemic has caused regulations that have, in some stages, seen restaurants unable to invite customers inside, or on outdoor patios, restricted to takeout only.
At times restaurants were restricted from taking certain customers, such as groups that were not families, and only being able to use particular parts of their business, as they continued to pay rent on their premises. Nevertheless, this is only some of the damage restaurants have had to suffer throughout COVID-19.
Businesses such as these, especially in Niagara-on-the-Lake, have been forced to pay high rents, with little or no income, notwithstanding some landlords who have been generous throughout the pandemic. But when your business has no income, it is difficult to maintain a healthy financial situation.
At the beginning of 2020, we were all surprised at how great an impact a new disease by the name of Coronavirus had on our everyday lives. The government began to place and enforce new restrictions on when we could go outside and where we could go.
That is not to say these restrictions were not necessary, as many people were beginning to suffer from the effects of COVID-19. And some businesses are still suffering. Around March 2020, as case numbers began to increase, so did restrictions, as the government feared that their hospital capacity would not be able to handle the high number of cases.
Provincial governments began to target businesses that were not essential, and could be an outbreak risk. This involved shutting down all restaurants and restricting any forms of gatherings. Without gatherings, this gave people less of a reason to order takeout from restaurants too. Although following this, things began to calm down and cases began to decrease last summer and we saw the provincial government minimize some of their restrictions on restaurants.
Nonetheless, during the second and third waves, the restrictions were right back in place, and restaurants again had to shut down.
Although we move into Step 3 of the reopening process Friday, restaurant owners say it will be hard to recover from the pandemic results. Employees especially will be hard to replace. John Eymann, co-owner of Bricks & Barley in Virgil, says he has lost at least 25 percent of his staff since the restaurant has re-opened, mostly because people took other jobs during the shutdowns in order to pay their bills. He says one of the significant factors for Bricks & Barley surviving throughout this pandemic was a pre-built patio.
However, many smaller restaurants did not have that advantage going into the pandemic and have suffered because of this. “We are all in this together,” says Eymann, meaning we need to be understanding and supportive through a challenging period in their industry.
“The restaurant kept the core staff employed as they continued to give the staff full hours even if not busy. As they want their staff to remain on the payroll.”
As Step 3 approached, the staff at Bricks & Barley were working hard getting the dining room ready to greet locals once again and see some familiar faces, adds Eymann.
“We thank our locals for their support during the COVID-19 pandemic. Please go to our website to reserve your table either inside our dining room or on our beautiful, covered patio,” he says.
“We are a well-loved local spot, and we encourage locals to continue to support businesses the best they can.”
Paul Dietsch, co-owner of the Sandtrap Pub & Grill, says going into Step 3 “gives us more occupancy. Many locals know patios are already busy, due to limited seating, and may be hesitant to come out due to waiting times. However, now that inside is opening, this gives us a lot of new seats, meaning short wait times if at all.”
The restaurant owners feel a lot more at ease knowing that the provincial cases are going down, and a large number of people are vaccinated, says Dietsch. “Additionally, the restaurant will still be following all protocols in place by the province, with tables six feet apart, plexiglass in place and all staff are being screened when coming in. It’s time to come out and enjoy time with friends and see people they have not seen in a while. Let’s continue to move forward”.
Supporting local restaurants is vital for helping our economy return to normal, the most obvious way would be giving them our business, whether eating on their patio or ordering takeout, as we were able to during Step 2, and now, if we’re comfortable, dining indoors.
Jeremy Harb, food and beverage manager of the Prince of Wales restaurants, says not having indoor dining has directly impacted them while trying to accommodate all guests. Patio dining is subject to weather conditions. Guests have been very empathetic throughout this pandemic as they realize the struggles restaurants have experienced, he says, However, the adaptability of the Prince of Wales has been a crucial factor to accommodating all guests, as their company encourages out-of-the-box thinking.
Harb also points out exactly how important local support is. Locals are essential to their business, he says, a vital component of their restaurant — with new and familiar promotions offered, local support has been an enormous help.
As restaurants reopen, physical distancing will still be required, and circumstances are not ideal. However, this situation is not going to get any better if we do not recognize who is struggling, and attempt to assist them.
Born and raised in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Nicolas Frendo is a current writer for Carleton University. He studies business law at their school. His articles often focus on finance, and he looks forward to writing more articles about current events and the good people of this town.