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B.C. restaurants ready to reopen and patrons hungry for dine in

Provincial health orders restricting indoor dining, adult group fitness classes, faith gatherings and travel outside of three zones in the province expired at midnight Monday.
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Restaurants in B.C. cities like Victoria and Vancouver have been hard-hit by COVID-19 restrictions and lack of tourism. Times Colonist photo

Restaurants that have been subsisting on takeout and patio revenues after indoor dining was closed under COVID circuit-breaker restrictions six weeks ago are ready to reopen today, said an industry leader.

“We’ve told the industry that and our guidance is if you do open today to revert back to the protocols we had in place before, which was six people at a table [from the same household] and distancing guidelines,” said Ian Tostenson, president of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association.

“It’s important that we be cautious here, not to go open and go crazy, but open and wait for the premier to give us the next signal,” said Tostenson. Provincial health orders restricting indoor dining, adult group fitness classes, faith gatherings and travel outside of three zones in the province expired at midnight Monday.

The restaurant industry is looking for the green light today on exactly how to open, clarification on how many people to a table and whether they must be household contacts or safe contacts, and a plan for how fast restaurants might ramp-up to full capacity for indoor and outdoor dining.

“I think it’s going to take a while to do that but I think those are the three priorities,” said Tostenson.

Restaurants will need time to restock food and liquor, and hire and retrain staff since many have left the industry, said Tostenson. “We are going to be faced with a shortage of labour both in the front of the house and the back of the house, so that’s going to take a while to sort that out.” Some restaurants may choose to curtail hours or limit menu items as they ramp up staffing, he said.

“So it’s going take us a while to get back, but we will get back, but it is going to be a gradual climb,” said Tostenson.

Mike Gonzalez, owner of The Old Spaghetti Factory, 703 Douglas St., is advertising “hiring in all positions” for his 400-seat restaurant. For now, he figures he needs to hire and rehire 20 to 30 people.

The restaurant has, in the past, hired a lot of students. Some part- and full-time employees had to be laid off. Many university students returned to their hometowns for online classes, said Gonzalez. Some employees have gone to the construction industry which is booming, he said.

“We’ve been told to gear up towards reopening but we haven’t been given the green light yet,” said Gonzalez, adding he’s somewhat in the dark as to what to expect.

After 12 years working at the Spaghetti Factory in Vancouver and 23 years running his own venue, and never having seen anything like this, Gonzalez said he remains hopeful.

“It’s been a devastating 12-, 14-plus months,” said Gonzalez. Staff and management have worked doubly hard in a COVID environment, sometimes short-staffed. “We’ll keep slugging it out. There are brighter days ahead.”

The biggest hope now, said Gonzalez, is that “there isn’t another circuit breaker.”

Prior to the circuit breaker, indoor dining was permitted, with plastic barriers between guests, distancing, and seating limited to household contacts; patios were benefiting from favourable spring weather.

Restaurants in cities such as Victoria and Vancouver, more dependent on tourists and full office buildings, were harder hit by the restrictions, but restaurants in the suburbs were starting to do well again, said Tostenson. In the U.S. — where 163 million people, or about 50 per cent of the population, have had one dose of COVID vaccine and 130 million or almost 40 per cent are fully vaccinated with two doses — the restaurant business is “exploding,” said Tostenson.

“I think we can anticipate a high demand. Prior to the circuit breaker, it was pretty busy; suburban markets were quite strong.”

There’s “a real hunger” amongst people to socialize again, said Tostenson, but the pandemic is still here so, hopefully, by following public-health guidance and with increasing numbers vaccinated, people can go out and dine and have fun again without leading to more COVID cases in the fall, he said.

Restaurants will have a role to play to practise physical distancing and maintain the highest health standards “to avoid a fourth wave, that would be devastating,” he said.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com