The buzz of full restaurants and tills ringing will start to become familiar on Thursday as British Columbia largely returns to the rhythms of pre-pandemic life.
While businesses are excited about the return of customers, restaurant, retail and hotel associations say they are also hampered by staff shortages.
High COVID-19 vaccination rates and a dramatic drop in cases has led the province to enter the next phase of its reopening plan.
Residents can go to dinner indoors and outdoors without a limit on numbers, and attend fairs and festivals by following communicable disease measures, such as staying away if they’re sick. Masks will no longer be mandatory before further restrictions are removed in September.
Although masks aren’t mandatory, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry encouraging people to continue wearing them in all indoor places. She said Wednesday that masks remain an important layer of protection until more people have immunity from two doses of a vaccine.
Ian Tostenson, president of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said the industry is both excited and worried about reopening.
“It’s kind of scary for everybody. It’s kind of like opening night on Broadway,” he said with a laugh.
“It’s the anticipation. It’s so odd. Like the anticipation of being able to operate in a way we did it before, but we want to make sure we do it right.”
The main worry for the industry is a “significant” labour shortage, resulting in restaurants having to make decisions like reducing hours or shortening menus, he said.
British Columbia saw about 30 per cent of restaurants close their doors in the last 16 months, he said. The industry employed about 190,000 people before the pandemic began but “straw polls” showed about 40,000 left, he added.
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He expects restaurants and pubs to be busy.
“People are really looking forward to getting out.”
Ingrid Jarrett, president of the British Columbia Hotel Association, said a number of hotels can’t book their rooms because they are so short staffed.
The industry was facing a serious labour shortage that was exacerbated by the pandemic, she said, adding hotels usually employ foreign workers and students.
“None of those people are here now because the international border is still closed. So it is a dreadful problem to have. And it’s going to be very difficult.”
Hotels are calling back laid-off employees but many of them have found work elsewhere and new people have to be trained to follow the COVID-19 safety protocols, which is a long process, Jarrett said.
“We just do not have enough people.”
Hotels may be busy in the next few months but Jarrett said she is not sure how the industry will fare through the winter and into the spring.
“We don’t actually think that we will be able to recover from the pandemic until April of 2022, especially with that international border still being closed,” she said.
Stores have faced a mixed bag during the pandemic, said Greg Wilson, B.C.’s government relations director for the Retail Council of Canada. Grocery, pharmacy and liquor stores didn’t see a change in the number of customers, but fashion and clothing shops saw a dip, he said.
He expects customers to gradually return to fashion stores.
“As there are more events, more social events and more work events, people will need clothing,” Wilson said.
“We’ll be rediscovering stores that we haven’t visited for 16 months or longer.”
There will be ongoing challenges for businesses, said Jeremy Stone, director of the community economic development program at Simon Fraser University.
“It’s not going to be: ‘OK. We’re reopened and everything is perfect for businesses overnight.’ So right now, we know that there is a ton of problems in logistics.”
Those problems include a shortage of both staff and supplies, which will likely make businesses conservative in their approach, he added.
Although COVID-19 has created “a lot of anxiety,” Stone said he thinks people are ready to move on with their lives.
“It’s gonna be great and scary, you know, at the same time,” Stone said.
“I’m really confident and I think others should be confident too to get back out and live our, hopefully, normal lives.”