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Manitoba restaurants report positive reopening weekend: ‘We missed them’

Browns Socialhouse bar manager, Jaz Hrem, left, and server Claire McCarvill set up the bar in preparation of re-opening as some COVID-19 restrictions are lifted in Winnipeg, Friday, February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS / John Woods

It’s not business as usual, but Manitoba restaurateurs will take what they can get.

Patrons filled dining rooms across the province up to their 25 per cent capacity limit as new provincial public health orders permitted the operation of in-person food service as of Friday.

“It’s been really great,” Fionn MacCool’s franchise owner Jay Kilgour tells 680 CJOB. “(Customers) have been very respectful of the rules and we’ve heard a lot of positive feedback on how our restaurant is set up.”

Read more: Coronavirus: Restaurants, gyms adapt to new life under loosened Manitoba restrictions

Walk into any Manitoba dining room, and you should see some similarities — tables with seating for no more than five people, spaced far apart — or with barriers between them.

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Those are all rules restaurants have to abide by to be able to welcome customers back into their building for the first time in exactly three months — when sweeping “level red” restrictions went into effect provincewide in mid-November.

“At our ‘height’ of capacity almost every table will be sat, but there’s a different look inside the pub with the removal of all those tables,” Kilgour says.

Through three nights of operation, his two restaurants have only hit the capacity limit once, in part thanks to an online reservation system that allows patrons to select their own seating time, spaced by a buffer for cleaning and sanitization.

Click to play video 'Restaurants in Manitoba uncertain how to properly comply with loosened health restrictions' Restaurants in Manitoba uncertain how to properly comply with loosened health restrictions
Restaurants in Manitoba uncertain how to properly comply with loosened health restrictions – Feb 12, 2021

After 12 weeks of strictly takeout, it’s a number Kilgour’s comfortable with.

“I was an advocate for (the Manitoba government) to present the science to us if we’re going to stay closed,” he says. “I’m very happy we’re reopening. We were forced to close with no reasons behind it.”

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The reopening is doing no favours to his businesses’ bottom line — Kilgour says he’d save more money by keeping the dining room closed — but still, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

“We can’t look at it in that respect. You’ve got to start somewhere and you’ve got to start slowly for the safety of everybody. To put it in perspective, we’re doing nearly the same sales with almost double the labour.”

Putting a price on the mental health of both himself and his staff is something Kilgour deems impossible.

“I called the staff on Wednesday to discuss their comfort levels, but overall just getting back to work and being able to make some money has had such a positive effect on everyone, because financial pressures weigh on people.”

“Before we opened on Friday, a couple of servers were almost in tears, they were so happy.”

The takeout and delivery side of Fionn’s has remained steady through the first few days of in-person service being available, something Kilgour wants to continue to focus on.

Read more: Coronavirus: 7 probable cases of U.K. variant on Manitoba First Nation

“We kind of realized about two hours into opening on Friday that takeout was going to remain pretty busy,” he says, explaining how he quickly put together a separate entrance for pickup orders to reduce congestion.

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One major change from November that Kilgour’s had to prepare for is the addition of a “household-only” rule — allowing only those who live together to dine out together.

It’s a rule that’s been met with opposition from some Manitobans — who are permitted to have two “designated” household visitors under the same public health order.

“It’s a tough one,” Kilgour says. “We’re putting too much pressure on restaurants to police a job that’s not their responsibility.”

“It’s also reasonable to think if we turn away a group that drove to the restaurant together and don’t live in the same household, they’re going to gather somewhere else in an environment that’s maybe not as safe and sanitized.”

Kilgour says thankfully, no one’s tried to skirt the rules at either of his locations so far — but he hopes the province adjusts the mandate when it revisits the restrictions in early March.

And while he’s happy to be back in business, Kilgour’s still looking out for those Manitoba restaurants that decided not to open on Friday.

“We can’t forget about the places that are choosing to stay closed. I think it’s really important that if you haven’t been affected financially as much, you’re still ordering takeout from (those businesses).

“We need to have places to go when this is all over.”

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Click to play video 'Allowed to open at one-quarter capacity, some Manitoba restaurants opt to stay closed' Allowed to open at one-quarter capacity, some Manitoba restaurants opt to stay closed
Allowed to open at one-quarter capacity, some Manitoba restaurants opt to stay closed – Feb 12, 2021