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As Winnipeggers lined up outside stores on the weekend after certain pandemic restrictions were lifted, many business owners could only hope for some much-needed customers to walk through their doors soon.

Not being able to open to diners feels like punishment to Roula Alevizos.

The general manager of Saddlery on Market, a comfort food destination in the Exchange District, has spent a lot of time wondering how the eatery will survive: there have been few customers, and business, which is limited to pickup and delivery, is down 95 per cent from this time last year.

When she learned restaurants were not on the latest list of businesses allowed to open to in-person service, with capacity limits, it came as another blow.

"I don’t understand, and it’s not just me, I think a lot of people feel that restaurants have been picked on," she said.

Hair salons and barbershop owners scrambled to open as of Saturday, when code-red restrictions were relaxed. New public health orders kept in place the ban on in-person customers for restaurants and gyms.

The province’s top doctor, Brent Roussin, said a limited loosening of restrictions would help keep COVID-19 at bay. He noted prolonged contact indoors involves a higher risk of infection.

But Alevizos argued restaurants in Winnipeg can distance their customers safely.

"I was at Superstore two weeks ago, and the place was packed," she said. "We have a lot of space here, and tables are so far apart you have to yell, never mind touch someone next to you."

Saddlery on Market opened briefly in the summer, using its patio space, but has been closed since early November. She worries her industry is being punished for mistakes made by restaurants that were fined for rules violations during the summer.

"I don’t think that everyone has to pay the price for one or two of us not following the rules, because most of us are following the rules," she said.

The question of why a barbershop or a hair salon — arguably spaces where prolonged contact is part of the job — are allowed to conduct in-person business now may be based on data collected by the province on transmission, but it hasn’t been made available to Alevizos, or other business owners.

"I’d like to know where this data is coming from, and where these numbers are coming from, because I certainly don’t see it," she said.

On Lagimodiere Boulevard, North Star Fitness has two open spaces for people to work out — one 5,000 square feet, and the other 4,000 square feet.

'I don't understand, and it's not just me, I think a lot of people feel that restaurants have been picked on' ‐ Roula Alevizos, general manager of Saddlery on Market

The idea that people would be unable to safely work out in a socially-distanced space is confusing to Annette Tetrault, the fitness centre’s manager.

"I don’t have the data, if I did, maybe that would ease my mind," she said. "But right now, we don’t have it, the government has it, and it’s not being shared."

There are a lot of ways to work out at a gym, Tetrault said, and much of it is solitary. Even personal training, where only two people are working together, would be safer than most businesses allowed to be open now.

"We have a very big space — why put all the gyms in one category?" she said. "I don’t know how small a barbershop is, but probably people are a lot closer."

She hopes gyms are able to open in three weeks, maybe even at a staggered level — allowing one-on-one training but not group classes, for example — but she worries that the restrictions being lifted now will set the province back too far for that to be a possibility.

"I don’t understand why that’s more essential than fitness, where it seems to me it really helps your mind and health to do some exercise," she said.

Even restaurants that have been a Winnipeg staple for decades will feel the effects of even just three more weeks of being closed to in-person service, said Sachit Mehra, owner and manager of East India Company restaurant said.

The family restaurant has been in business for almost 50 years and spanned three generations, but discussions around revenue have taken a dark turn recently.

"We’re eating into reserves quite aggressively, and you can only sustain yourself for so long given that amount of crunch," Mehra said.

"So now, it’s not a matter of writing off the year, discussions we’re now having internally within the family is just writing off retirement."

Learning restaurants would have to keep waiting was "incredibly difficult, from a business standpoint, from a mental standpoint," he said, but noted the restaurant’s decades of service has helped keep it afloat through repeat customers.

COVID-19 counts have proven that people are going to attempt to gather regardless of public health orders, Mehra said, and suggested the province could have allowed the "highly scrutinized" food industry to remain open in an attempt to let a small number of people gather in a regulated, sanitized space.

"I think there was an opportunity to approach the hospitality industry, not only here in Manitoba but across the board, as a resource instead of a liability," he said.

Twitter: malakabas_

Malak Abas

Malak Abas

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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