Business owners in London, Ont., gathered at Toboggan Brewing Co. on Wednesday to share the struggles they’ve faced amid the COVID-19 pandemic and issue a plea for local support.
The news conference, which saw owners from a number of industries including restaurant, retail and optometry, comes as the city deals with three outbreaks of the novel coronavirus.
In the following days since the outbreaks were declared, both the Middlesex-London Health Unit and business owners attending Wednesday’s news conference have noted a significant drop in people visiting downtown businesses, particularly in London’s Richmond Row area.
Jerry Pribil of Marienbad Restaurant began the news conference by noting that businesses such as his were doing well throughout summer as London saw daily case increases that stayed relatively low.
“Revenues were going slowly up, but they were going up and the cases were going down,” said Pribil.
The restaurant owner told the news conference that this period of stability ended once news broke of an outbreak among Western University students, the first of three outbreaks declared last week.
“We somehow lost, to a certain degree, consumer confidence,” said Pribil.
Mike Smith is the owner of Toboggan Brewing Co., Joe Kool’s, Fellini Koolini’s and the Runt Club and helped organize Wednesday’s news conference. Smith said the focus of the event was to show Londoners that it’s safe to visit restaurants and support local business.
“All the people here, from key restaurants all over, haven’t had one (COVID-19) incident of staff or customers… we’ve taken all the precautions,” said Smith.
“Small business is pretty perilous right now and some businesses are barely hanging on… they need the support. It’s local jobs and it’s local flavour.”
Emily Ferguson of Hangar9 says loyal customers have helped the Richmond Street clothing store, but adds they’ve struggle to get new people to walk through their door.
“We are doing everything we can,” said Ferguson, speaking to the health guidelines Hangar9 has been made to follow.
“After everybody tries something on, we do steam it, even though that is just something Hangar9 wants to take as a protocol,” said Ferguson.
Dr. Josephine Pepe is the owner of Old North Optometry and says her business has struggled with the fact that it can only see about half as many patients as it would usually see before the pandemic.
“We’re struggling trying to accommodate the backlog of patients (whose appointments) we had to cancel during the lockdown,” said Pepe.
“We’re trying to get those patients in, but we can only see so many in a day because we’ve got to clean and disinfect in between, we’ve got to stay physically distant, we’re trying to limit how many people come into the doors… it’s been quite a challenge.”
Robert D’Amico opened Taverna 13thirtyone on Hyde Park Road on Mar. 8 before being forced to close on Mar. 15 due to the pandemic. This prompted the northeast London restaurant to rely on takeout in the meantime.
“As we progressed, opening up the patios and then going inside, it’s been feeling a little bit more normal to the fact that we’re going forward, but it’s been pretty scary,” said D’Amico.
Pamela Parker-Lansdowne of The Tasting Room says her restaurant has struggled with the labour costs of following health guidelines.
“Bleaching the front door handles, going to the washrooms, getting the high-touch surface areas, making sure the tables are sanitized. It’s just a lot more work for half the business,” said Parker-Lansdowne.
Parker-Lansdowne says she worries all restaurants are being put under the same blanket with customers scared to visit due to coronavirus concerns.
“My friends in the industry… are doing an amazing job, so we just got to follow through on the places that aren’t and get them back up to protocol,” said Parker-Lansdowne.
“There’s a lot of job at risk,” said Jim Davies, the owner of J Dee’s Market Grill.
Davies said business has been slowly coming back after the restaurant was allowed to reopen in July, but added that last week’s outbreaks saw a drop in customers.
The restauranteur added that much of his challenges stem from having to deal with things that are out of his control, such as how the pandemic plays out.
“As a business owner, if you have a problem, you sit down and think of a solution and you work on that, but this one is out of our hands,” said Davies.
“We’re taking it day by day.”
Data gathered in 2020 has painted a dire picture for those in the restaurant industry.
Figures released last month by Statistics Canada estimated that more than 4,600 businesses in Ontario’s accommodation and food services sector, and 11,000 across Canada, closed between February and the end of April.
Local data for that specific sector wasn’t available, but the agency estimated London saw more than 1,000 businesses spanning various economic sectors close in that same time period.
— With files from Global News’ Matthew Trevithick.