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Halifax small restaurant owners uncertain whether they’ll survive the coronavirus pandemic

Coronavirus outbreak: Pandemic forces Studio East restaurant in Halifax to close down
WATCH: Halifax small restaurant owners brace for possibility of having to close their doors due to the pandemic.

The once bustling and vibrant local food and beverage industry in Halifax and Dartmouth has ground to a halt in the face of the coronavirus.

Closure signs are peppered across doors in neighbourhoods that were once thriving with local and international customers, from cruise ship passengers to cross-Canada travellers.

Now, many local restaurant owners are facing the possibility that they may not survive the pandemic. With no end to the virus in sight and public health guidelines significantly decreasing the number of customers they are able to serve in-house, the virus is taking a toll on the cultural food and beverage hub.

“We can’t even fathom opening back up because operating under those restrictions is contrary to what we built our business plan on and most people are just like us, if you think about how small restaurants are now. That’s to protect your overhead, you have to make it small so you can stay alive,” said Jamie MacAulay, the owner of Water & Bone in Halifax.

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Jamie MacAulay
Jamie MacAulay opened Water & Bone three-years ago with his wife. Alexa MacLean/Global Halifax

MacAulay says he’s uncertain what the future will hold for the niche ramen noodle restaurant he and his wife opened three years ago.

He says COVID-19 hit like a tidal wave. Public health forced businesses to shutter their doors and with that came a catastrophic end to customer revenue.

READ MORE: Studio East restaurant in Halifax closes doors for good due to coronavirus

While he appreciates the urgency for public health to limit the spread of the virus and the measures that had to be taken, he’s gutted at the possibility of not being able to rebound from multiple months of closure.

“The future is pretty uncertain. We hope that we’re able to do some retail ramen kits for people to take home, based on our recipes. So, we’re hoping that that’s something that we can do,” he said.

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MacAulay says he can’t say at this time whether or not the restaurant will reopen at its Charles Street location.

He says he invested his heart and soul into the business, as many other local restaurant owners do.

“That’s the only recipe that works because it’s a lot of overhead, it’s a lot of shrinking margins. Food cost is going up, labour costs are going up, menu costs are coming down,” he said.

MacAulay isn’t alone in his struggles. Just down the road on Cunard Street, Studio East has announced it’s closing its doors at that location.

The virus has forced these small businesses into a position where they aren’t able to pay rent.

While there is a federal commercial rent assistance program available, landlords aren’t mandated to accept it.

Premier Stephen McNeil says he’s heard concerns from small businesses about issues with the COVID-19 support programs.

“I’ve heard from a number of people suggesting the federal rent program, commercial landlords are not signing up for and some who would prefer not to have the rent deferral program that we put out there,” he said during a May 15 provincial COVID-19 update.

READ MORE: N.S. restaurateurs welcome CERB expansion, but call for additional COVID-19 support

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McNeil says he’s working with his federal counterparts to try and work on a solution, suggesting the federal and provincial programs may work best if they’re “blended together.”

Some small business owners feel landlords should be mandated to accept programs that offer rent relief to their commercial tenants.

The co-owner of Stillwell Beergarden, Chris Reynolds, says if that’s not something government is willing to do, then banks should be forced into doing more to help by “pausing” mortgage payments for commercial landlords.

“There’s been tons of personal mortgages that have been paused for people on their homes but they need commercial mortgage pause, as well,” he said.

CHRIS REYNOLDS PHONER GRAPHIC
Chris Reynolds is the co-owner of Stillwell Beergarden in Halifax. Alexa MacLean/Global Halifax

Reynolds says the issue with the current system is that the majority of the onus is being placed on the tenants, which is resulting in them having to consider closing their doors permanently.

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“It would be fine if the landlords shouldered some of the burden and the tenants shouldered some of the burden, but right now because of the way it’s set up, it’s 100 per cent on the tenants, which is destroying our industry, destroying our culture,” Reynolds said.