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Frustration, aggravation on the menu

Food-and-beverage sector unfairly targeted by provincial health crackdown, association says

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Restaurants and beverage rooms are two of the sectors provincial health officials are targeting because of spiking COVID-19 case numbers in Winnipeg, and they're not happy.

Dr. Brent Roussin, the province's chief public health officer, announced Friday that for at least the two weeks beginning Monday, group and table sizes in restaurants and lounges will be reduced to a maximum of five guests from the current 10, and overall capacity will be cut in half.

Roussin also announced that all beverage rooms, as well as casinos, entertainment facilities and bingo halls, would be closed entirely.

The measures will be re-evaluated when officials look at the COVID-19 numbers in two weeks.

But Shaun Jeffrey, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said his industry doesn't understand why it seems to always take the brunt of the province's pandemic fight.

The taps will be shut off at bars in Winnipeg. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The taps will be shut off at bars in Winnipeg. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

"We are drowning and they literally now are putting their foot on our head," Jeffrey said after the announcement.

"We have had no contacts (in restaurants) since Sept. 26, but since then there have been contacts in schools, personal-care homes, daycares and transit buses. There are no restrictions for any of those, but they put restrictions on us. What is the reasoning behind it?

"We're lost. We have no understanding of why. What else do we have to do to show we are safe?"

Jeffrey said some establishments have spent thousands of dollars on safety measures such as installing plexiglass shields.

"If they do this, we need them to come to the table with some sector-specific subsidies similar to five other jurisdictions in Canada.

Here is how the new provincial rules are going to affect these businesses:

Restaurants

Earls restaurants have undergone significant changes.

Serving staff wear masks. During the last two weeks under provincial government-mandated code-orange level regulations in the city, customers also have had to wear masks anywhere but at their table. Cleaning and sanitizing is done constantly.

Most striking are the transparent shields separating every table and booth.

Ann Top, regional director of operations for Earls, a West Coast-based chain with has three restaurants in the city, said the shields were installed after the province offered the choice of having each table two metres apart, or closer if protective shields with specific dimensions were installed.

Top said Friday's announced public health changes override those allowances.

"The Plexiglas barriers creates a bubble for every table, but now we have to be at 50 per cent capacity," she said. "I know the (COVID-19) numbers have to come down. It is unfortunate our industry has taken the brunt of this."

Even with plexiglas barriers, restaurants such as Earls will only be allowed to fill their space to 50 per cent capacity. (Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Even with plexiglas barriers, restaurants such as Earls will only be allowed to fill their space to 50 per cent capacity. (Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Top said the chain already began to make changes, including laying off staff two weeks ago.

"By Day 3 we saw the sales weren't there, so we laid off staff so that they could get government benefits," she said.

"Our tables were already limited to six, so going from six to five isn't that much of a change... we're hopeful after two weeks we can return to what was normal, pre-orange."

Meanwhile, on Friday afternoon, Ravi Ramberran had to tell some of his staff at The Four Crowns Inn restaurant — three single mothers — that they wouldn’t be paid for two weeks, starting Monday.

"I don’t know what to tell them. It’s heartbreaking. These are people that give a damn about their jobs," he said. "These aren’t kids, these aren’t children, these are people that have got bills to pay, rent to pay, car payments to make, kids to feed. This is tough."

Ramberran, owner of the hotel, restaurant and event centre on McPhillips Street, said despite his restaurant being a full-service food space, he will have to close his doors because he converted it from what used to be a beverage room. Because it technically is still licensed as a beverage room, it must close under the restrictions.

"I think it’s important to realize that beverage rooms have mostly converted into full-service restaurants, whether the licence says that on the old paperwork or not," he said.

Ramberran had to close during the first shutdown in March and let go half of his staff. He bore costs in the thousands of dollars of re-hiring and re-training staff when restaurants were able to reopen weeks later.

He said the new restrictions have led to confusion among employees.

"They say, ‘What are we going to do?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know,’ because I don’t know what we’re going to do," he said.

He stressed the importance of public safety and said he supports the restrictions, but noted it was unfair for the province to group the vast majority of eateries, which have been following regulations, in with the "really disrespectful" establishments in province that had been flouting the rules.

"We’re trying super-hard to protect ourselves, our own families, but keep putting food on the table for our staff and ourselves," he said.

"I understand that Brent Roussin’s got to make a call somewhere, I get that, I’m not against him, but before we make these calls we’ve got to consult our associations, we’ve got to consult with the stakeholders, we can’t just blast things out there."

Bars

The Roost is a small, intimate space known for creative cocktails and its rooftop patio. It normally seats just 18 people, and new restrictions have cut it down to nine. The small staff at won’t be as negatively affected as other, larger establishments.

Ravi Ramberran, owner of the Four Crowns, will have to close his bar because even though it serves food, it is licensed as a beverage room. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Ravi Ramberran, owner of the Four Crowns, will have to close his bar because even though it serves food, it is licensed as a beverage room. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Co-owner Elsa Taylor said the " little living room hangout" space on Corydon Avenue won’t change.

"It’s too bad, we had just set up our Plexiglas barriers at The Roost so we could have our regular capacity of 18 inside, but I imagine with these new restrictions that doesn’t matter," she said.

Code-orange restrictions imposed earlier this month left The Roost mostly quiet, and part-time staff were temporarily laid off so they would be eligible for federal emergency relief benefit payments.

Taylor said she still isn’t fully aware of what the next two weeks and possible further restrictions will mean for the business. Tables on the patio are spaced apart and there are heaters to help mitigate the chilly temperatures, which Taylor called a "godsend." Tables inside are socially distanced and there are just two seats available at the bar.

The current pressing issue, Taylor said, is not so much one of managing spacing under new restrictions, it’s a matter of assessing whether it would be better, ethically, to temporarily close the doors.

"It’s tricky for us from an economic standpoint, but we look forward to government support in order to keep us afloat," she said.

Nightclubs

Lipstixx Exotic Night Club and Sports Bar on Arlington Street owner Robert Tummillo has to close the nightclub at the hotel that includes a restaurant and VLTs, because it is licensed as a beverage room.

Lipstixx owner Robert Tummillo will have to close his nightclub because it is licensed as a beverage room. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Lipstixx owner Robert Tummillo will have to close his nightclub because it is licensed as a beverage room. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"I’m taking a big hit here for sure, just because my licence is as a beverage room. If somebody across the street has a lounge, they can stay open, but I have to close, and that’s not really fair," he said. "We’re doing the exact same thing."

Tummillo will have to lay off 90 per cent of his staff despite following sanitization protocols and no cases linked to his establishment. He had to lay off about 50 per cent of his staff earlier this month when the province imposed restrictions requiring licensed establishments to stop selling liquor by 10 p.m. and making sure all customers leave by 11 p.m.

"My people, my customers, from the bar side, (they come) from 11 till 2 — that’s my prime time. So that hurt me a lot," he said.

The messaging from the province, Tummillo said, is confusing and paints many establishments with one brush — he said if the province had been more specific , he would be able to provide amenities to maintain public health guidelines.

"They could’ve said to me, 'Don’t have any (exotic) dancers, you can have your VLTs open.' I would’ve done that," he said.

Tummillo said both the restaurant and the hotel will be affected even further by the new restrictions — the restaurant hasn’t reopened for dine-in service yet, and half of the hotel is reserved for dancers — but now that the nightclub side of the business is closed, those rooms will remain empty for at least two weeks.

"I still have to pay my heat, my mortgage and my taxes," he said. "Where’s the breaks here?"

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

malak.abas@freepress.mb.ca

Malak Abas

Malak Abas
Reporter

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason
Reporter

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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