No tourists, no students, no office workers: downtown restaurants face permanent closures

walking downtown

Business owners on what are usually some of Montreal's busiest streets are saying the summer of 2020 has been a season to forget, as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to tough economic times.

Lae Schmidt, manager of the Wainsteen & Gavino's acknowledged the Crescent St. restaurant has not been as busy as it used to be.

Crescent St. has been pedestrian-only since the start of the weekend, a measure the city took to prop up struggling businesses, and Schmidt said the past two days have been “the busiest” since the restaurant re-opened a month ago.

She said many employees have been discouraged and, while they try to keep their spirits up and smile, it can be hard for customers to see that effort behind their masks.

One manager of a nearby restaurant who wasn't authorized to speak to media said the situation has been difficult on both finances and morale.

“Employees are crying,” they said.

The ongoing pandemic presents “a lot of challenges to overcome,” said Quebec Restaurant Association vice-president Francois Meunier. “We must absolutely not take for granted that re-opening dining rooms at 1/8 or 3/8 capacity allows us to say we are in the clear.”

Meunier said the three months of closures at the pandemic's onset were “a disaster” that “did a lot of damage.”

According to a survey conducted by the association, 61 per cent of restauranteurs said they will have to close their doors if the distancing rules and government assistance measures remain the same beyond Christmas.

The struggle has been particularly harsh in downtown food courts. At the new Time Out Market in the Eaton Centre, which had opened to great fanfair just before the pandemic, opening hours have been significantly reduced and restaurants are only opening at noon.

Irene Poon, co-owner of Japanese restaurant Edo, said that rent remains at $16,000 per month but “some days, we only make $200 in sales.”

“When it opened, customers were excited to come back,” she said. “After a week or two, there was hardly anyone left. Since last week, with the requirement to wear a mask in the mall and construction holidays, there are even fewer customers.”

Poon said she is trying to stay positive and hopes a COVID-19 vaccine is quickly made available or the government increases aid.

Downtown restaurants are particularly affected by a lack of students, tourists and office tower employees who have taken to teleworking.

Only five per cent of workers were heading to their downtown offices before the province authorized a gradual return, according to the Montreal Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. The city also projects fewer than 1 million tourists will visit this year, compared to the yearly average of 11 million.

“It will have immense consequences,” said Meunier. “We can't think that people will find a minimum of frequentation with only the neighbourhood's residents.” 

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