Taprooms and eateries are sounding the alarm as the Winnipeg metro area moves to newly mandated COVID-19 restrictions following this weekend, with Manitoba’s restaurant association calling it the "last nail in the coffin" amid already plunging revenues.
Starting Monday, the province is making masks mandatory in all indoor spaces within the city’s 18 municipalities. Groups of no more than 10 people will be allowed to gather within indoor or outdoor spaces for at least four weeks.
But speaking at a suprise news conference Friday, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin did not clarify exactly how those restrictions would apply to the hospitality industry.
While the restrictions on gathering sizes don’t apply to bars or restaurants, because they are already operating under an existing health order, Roussin said it’s "very likely" changes will be implemented at city establishments after the industry is consulted in the coming days.
"Government and public health officials are consulting with the restaurant industry as well as bars, beverage rooms, brew pubs, microbreweries and distilleries on steps that could be implemented to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission," reads a statement to the Free Press from Manitoba Public Health. "Additional measures may be put in place following these consultations."
The restrictions come as only 30 per cent of restaurants within Manitoba are making normal sales as of this week, according to figures from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business — seven months since the onset of the pandemic and early lockdowns.
That leaves local operators unsure how business will look come Monday and for the foreseeable future.
"I don’t have a clue what’s coming Monday yet," said Robert Johnson, the owner of D Jay’s Restaurant on Portage Avenue. After early pandemic struggles, the restaurant has seen a steady increase in business this summer, but any forthcoming changes will likely have an adverse effect on restaurants like his, whether the rules change or not. "From now until Christmas is crucial for our industry," he said. "This is where we make the fat so we can survive January to March."
He said he’ll have to wait and see what changes are coming for businesses like his, but he hopes the province is clear on what restaurants need to do to properly enforce the rules while continuing to do business.
"I sincerely hope the government keeps talking to restaurants (to consult)," he said.
Shaun Jeffrey, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant & Foodservices Association, says the new guidelines could mean "further decimation of the industry."
"While we’re very hopeful and glad that the province is consulting us through this unlike previous restrictions," he said, "this news could mean a lot of restaurants and pubs — who have already been facing pressures — will have to make that last decision about whether they can survive or will need to close permanently."
Jeffrey clarified that while wearing masks at eateries before being seated is mandatory for customers, larger businesses that can accommodate more than 10 people with social distancing will be allowed to do so.
"I certainly hope this doesn’t dissuade people from supporting their local businesses," said Jonathan Alward, Prairies director for CFIB. "Consumer confidence has already been down this whole time and I suspect it will only go down further as a result of this."
Steve Hrousalas, who runs Rae & Jerry’s Steak House on Portage Avenue, said his restaurant can accomodate more than 50 people with social distancing. But he worries the new restrictions will limit people from wanting to dine indoors.
"The biggest problem for me right now is that none of this has been explained to us properly," he said. "We’ve already been following all these protocols this whole time, while also paying for expensive personal protective equipment out of pocket. This new stuff will probably scare people away and make things hard for a lot of people.
"It’s going to be a challenge to survive."
John Kolevris, owner of Saffron’s Restaurant on Corydon Avenue, said having an outdoor patio at his location "makes things easier to convince people and have them feel safer."
"But I don’t know the damage this will do because patio season won’t last much longer either as we head into winter," he said.
Cordova Tapas & Wine was hoping to make some revenue off of Nuit Blanche this fall. But as organizers pulled the plug and are rescheduling the art party originally scheduled for tonight, the Exchange District taproom’s owner Greg Stevenard hopes the government steps up with support.
"Restaurants have a cost, and the province should help minimize it," he said. "It’s in their interest for us to survive."
"There’s a point when a restaurant can’t be struggling anymore and has to consider bankruptcy or closure, and in full confidence, we’re not too far from that ourselves."
Mike Del Bueno, owner-manager of King + Bannatyne in The Exchange, said Monday’s changes to gathering sizes will clearly impact restaurants of all types as people reconsider dining out and as patio season nears an end. King + Bannatyne also relies on a busy catering schedule, and with gathering sizes limited for the next month at least, Del Bueno expects cancellations for many upcoming engagements.
"It is what it is," he said. "In the end, what’s going to slow this down is people not being in contact with people, so this is something we will have to deal with."
— With files from Ben Waldman
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for this Free Press reporting position comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.