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Coronavirus pandemic could see 15% of B.C. restaurants close for good, says industry

The organization that represents the B.C. restaurant industry says it's bracing for a major impact from COVID-19.
The organization that represents the B.C. restaurant industry says it's bracing for a major impact from COVID-19. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File

The organization representing B.C.’s restaurant industry says the novel coronavirus pandemic could result in up to 15 per cent of restaurants shuttering for good.

BC Restaurant and Food Services Association president Ian Tostenson said that would be the worst-case scenario, but business owners are worried.

The City of Vancouver ordered all bars and restaurants closed for St. Patrick’s Day on Tuesday, and the province has banned gatherings of more than 50 people.

READ MORE: B.C. suspends K-12 classes indefinitely amid coronavirus pandemic, says economic help coming

Many restaurants have moved to offering only takeout and delivery, while others, like the Donnelly Group which owns more than a dozen eateries in Vancouver, are laying off hundreds of staff.

“It’s probably the right thing to do. We can participate in just healing the province quickly by letting people just sort of be away from it,” said Tostenson.

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“But at the same time, we need to make sure … that we give enough economic power back to the small business people involved with the community be able to start up when when they can start up again.”

Tostenson said B.C.’s restaurant industry generates more than $13 billion in economic activity and employs more than 180,000 people.

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READ MORE: All Vancouver bars and restaurants ordered closed for St. Patrick’s Day

Tostenson said five to six per cent of restaurants in B.C. usually close down in a year, but he said he worries that could triple due to COVID-19.

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He said margins are already thin and businesses are already facing increased pressure from property taxes, a higher minimum wage, and the Employer Health Tax.

Matti Rikkinen, owner of the Italian restaurant Robba da Matti in downtown Vancouver, said he recently hired and trained a new crop of staff for the busy summer season.

I had to let go of four out of the five new hires that I had,” he said.

Panic buying and hoarding continue despite government assurances there will not be shortages
Panic buying and hoarding continue despite government assurances there will not be shortages

Rikkinen said his business had already implemented social-distancing policies and massively ramped up sanitation procedures.

But he said he’s prepared to close to dine-in customers if needed. 

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“We have a lot of friends and family in Italy, and we understand what’s happening there and we don’t want it to get to that point here.”

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Raman Sandhu, co-owner of Max’s Deli in Vancouver, said she’s seen a 30- to 40-per-cent drop in business.

“I’m worried about paying rent, I have groceries, inventory I have to pay,” she said.

“Moreover, I’m worried about my employees. They have been working for me for the last 30 years. I don’t have answers for them. They’re asking me are we shutting down, what’s going to happen to our families, are you guys going to be paying me?”

Panic buying and hoarding continue despite B.C. government assurances of no shortages
Panic buying and hoarding continue despite B.C. government assurances of no shortages

At a news conference later that afternoon, Premier John Horgan said the government has been in consultation with business leaders to ensure people can make ends meet as more and more self-isolate.

“We’re going to be talking about rent banks, we’re going to be talking about challenges in the financial sector,” Horgan said.

Finance Minister Carole James said the province is also pressing the federal government to extend employment insurance to people who would not normally qualify, such as part-time workers.

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Tostenson said he’s expecting a major stimulus announcement from the province, and hopes it’ll include supports for restaurants workers who are laid off, especially because many of them depend on tips.

COVID-19 outbreak forces widespread recreational closures across Metro Vancouver
COVID-19 outbreak forces widespread recreational closures across Metro Vancouver

He said he’d also like to see B.C. back away from the Employer Health Tax and planned minimum wage hikes, along with relief on PST and property taxes once the crisis abates.

And then from our industry point of view, we just need to encourage people to go in and support the local restaurants, support the local farmers.”