A couple of weeks into Step 3 of the Ontario government’s COVID-19 reopening plan has meant a much-needed boost to the province’s depressed tourism industry, but it’s far from a bounce-back.
Even after provincial lockdowns and stay-at-home orders over the last 17 months, which left many Ontarians eager to get away, many tourist destinations are unable to offer a full-swing operation.
In Prince Edward County, many restaurants and shops are closed Monday through Wednesday or may have shortened hours. It’s the same story for many of the local wineries, including TerraCello Winery in Bloomfield where you’ll find winemaker and master pizzaiolo, Tony Auciello.
“There was almost 98 per cent of my sales gone for the past two years during COVID,” he told Global News.
Auciello said he felt so beaten down and out of options, he put the winery up for sale earlier this year. But when the deal fell through and with the arrival of Step 3 on the horizon, Auciello held on. As a small-batch winemaker with only a handful of loyal staff, he said he wasn’t in the position to offer outdoor wine tastings nor could he reopen beyond Thursday to Sunday.
“Operating in a limited capacity. Remember, you need the horses to carry the cart,” said Auciello.
The “horses” in this case are the workers.
“Staffing is such a huge problem for our industry right now… if you can’t attract these workers who may have left the tourism and hospitality industry whilst the pandemic was raging … these businesses simply can’t open because they don’t have the staff to do so,” said Christopher Bloore, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario.
And since workers are needed to manage things like reservations, many places in “The County” simply don’t take reservations, opting to operate on a first-come, first-served basis. This can mean long wait times for disappointed tourists who have already tried their luck at a few other closed establishments first.
“We sense a lot of that frustration when we say, ‘Hey, it’s going to be an hour wait,’ and they’re like, ‘Why is this an hour wait?'” said Natalie Wollenberg, co-owner of 555 Brewing Co. in Picton, before raising concerns about housing.
“There’s been a lot of emphasis and a lot of people that have been developing short-term accommodation here. One of the negative impacts of that is it drags it away from people who are trying to get long-term accommodation.”
Adding to Ontario’s labour shortage are capacity restrictions which also affect the tourism business.
“Reopening doesn’t mean recovery and especially with these capacity limits that limit tours or wine tastings … these are the things severely restricting the business capabilities of our members,” said Bloore.
Day-trippers looking to spend an afternoon at Sandbanks Provincial Park must book permits days in advance. Reduced capacity at the beaches means reduced visitors at the wineries and in town.
“It takes a week to book in so you can’t just last-minute come to Prince Edward County and have a day at the beach and then come for pizza and wine,” said Auciello.
Meanwhile, Wollenberg encouraged tourists to research the town well before they visit. She suggested finding out which restaurants accept reservations and book those in advance. If a restaurant you want to visit is operating on a first-come, first-served basis, make sure you arrive at least an hour before you want to be seated for your meal.