Halifax eateries reopen with bittersweet optimism

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As restaurants in the Maritimes begin to allow people to dine-in, many eateries continue to deal with the same major problem since being forced to close – paying the rent.

On a Friday, patios in downtown Halifax sat empty on an idyllic spring day – leaving residents anticipating the day when they’ll gather to enjoy a meal while basking in the sun.

“I would be the first one to walk through the door as soon as restaurants open,” says one prospective patron.

With customers allowed to eat-in at restaurants in New Brunswick, some restaurants say reopening will be their first hurdle; however, remaining open will be the real challenge.

“Our sales are down in the Maritimes,” says Restaurants Canada vice president for Atlantic Canada, Luc Erjavec. “Over 800 million dollars in sales are down, we predict, for the second quarter. And landlords are still demanding full rent.”

Notable Halifax chef, Craig Flinn, who is the owner of three restaurants, has heard from many in the industry concerning a less-than-adequate commercial rent deferral program.

“It's a complete fail,” says Flinn. “You can't make it voluntary; almost no landlords are going for it. This is still under a state of emergency, and when that emergency subsides, and we go ‘back to normal,’ yet revenues in all businesses are a fraction of what they used to be – how can rent be paid in full?”

Some establishments are finding it difficult to bring back staff, as staff must decide between taking more hours and losing their Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

“We're urging everyone who worked in the industry to come back – we have jobs once we reopen,” says Erjavec. “We have to get through this together.”

And customers are ready to come back – albeit to a new eating experience.

“I think we would like it,” says a hopeful customer. “I think it will be a bit peculiar because of the distancing.”

“For me, part of the enjoyment of eating is the social aspect of it,” says another restaurant-goer.

Meanwhile, restauranteurs like Flinn say eating out will look different moving forward.

“I can honestly say dining in full-service restaurants will never be the same, and certainly won’t be the same for the next year or two,” says Flinn. “It's all about seeing what people are wanting.”

(With files from CTV Atlantic's Nick Moore)