Anger and frustration is how Red Deer restaurant owner Brennen Wowk describes his reaction after Premier Jason Kenney warned eateries they are unlikely to be serving sit-down customers until at least June.
“I don’t think it’s realistic that people will be eating in restaurants at the end of May,” Kenney said during the regular COVID-19 update on Tuesday.
The premier said the government and health officials are working on updating its reopening plan. Kenney was hopeful that if case numbers start to fall again some of the restrictions imposed last week can be lifted.
Wowk said restaurant owners are willing to do what it takes to operate safely but they want a clearer idea of what the government’s reopening plan is and what sort of benchmarks have to be hit to allow for sit-down dining again. Only a week ago, the government estimated the latest restrictions would likely be in place for three weeks.
“When we’re told we’re in a three-week lockdown we base our operations and our employment strategies around that three-week timeline,” said the owner of Bo’s Bar and Grill.
“If they told us at that time three weeks was probably the best-case scenario and we were looking at a longer restaurant shutdown it would absolutely alter some of what we’re doing currently in terms of our operations.”
Opening and closing restaurants can be an involved process for restaurateurs. Besides lining up staff again, suppliers have to be contacted, fridges restocked and numerous other details attended to.
“With each shutdown there are a lot of hurdles you kind of have to overcome. Obviously, as we are now in our fourth lockdown we are more familiar with how to manage our inventory levels going into these.
“But there is no way to prevent all losses.”
Wowk, who is a representative on the Alberta Hospitality Association, has regularly met with government and health officials and tried to impress upon them that the industry needs more certainty about which markers, such as case loads or vaccination rates, will be used to determine what restrictions can be lifted and when.
“We’re seeing other provinces with a detailed path recovery that is better than what we’re seeing in Alberta,” he said. “There is a lack of transparency and a lack of strategic long-term planning with stakeholders at the table.”
Kenney said he was interested in Saskatchewan’s reopening plan and has asked health officials to look into it. Saskatchewan’s reopening plan is largely focused on the percentage of vaccinated residents, along with vaccine availability and the public adherence to health orders.
Wowk said the hospitality industry is leery about seeing Alberta’s recovery plan tied to vaccination levels.
What happens if a certain segment of the population refuses to get vaccinated and the province can’t hit its targets?
Will one-dose vaccination targets trigger eased health restrictions, or will two-dose targets be used?
And what happens if there is a significant drop-off in people getting their second doses?
If those sorts of scenarios play out, restaurants fear they will be facing restrictions into the fall and winter.
Taco Loft co-owner Michael Ubbing was not surprised at all that restaurants will not likely be serving sit-down customers this month.
“I’ve got a $300 bet riding on six weeks,” he said with a laugh. “We’re placing bets around the industry right now.”
Those who run restaurants are used to closely watching people, their patterns and trends he said. The signals coming out of Edmonton told him not to expect a quick reopening.
Ubbing said more clarity about the government’s opening and closing plans would be welcomed. But restaurant owners are no strangers to unpredictability. Whether you have a good day or a bad day can depend on things as variable as the weather.
“We have our plan B right now. We’re opening an ice cream shop down below that’s take-out only.”
He and business partner Todd Lawrence are planning a soft opening for the Ross Street Ice Cream Co. at 4926 Ross Street for Friday and expect to be in full swing in about 10 days.
“That was our pandemic plan bringing in more income. Everybody loves ice cream.
“And what is there plenty of down here? Parking and seating.”
Opening the ice cream shop will also allow him to keep all of 10 staff employed and as it gets going he will be looking for half a dozen more employees.