'It's tough to watch': Victoria restaurant industry reeling from new dining restrictions

The B.C. government’s new restrictions on indoor dining have already taken a major toll on restaurants and those that work in them on Vancouver Island.

John Cantin has owned and run John’s Place in downtown Victoria for close to four decades.

On Wednesday, he was throwing out food from his restaurant’s freezer.

A day earlier, he’d been forced to lay off 18 employees at his iconic Victoria restaurant

“There’s five people that have been with us over 36 years,” he said. “So it’s tough to watch this.”

The layoffs and wasted food were triggered by sudden restrictions announced Monday banning indoor dining in B.C. for three weeks. The restrictions caught restaurants by surprise and left thousands of service industry workers across B.C. in the lurch.

Anna Gerrard works for the Worker Solidarity Network. She says the province should have had plans already in place to provide financial support for the thousands of workers that will inevitably be laid off by these restrictions.

“When these announcements come on and they aren’t accompanied with assurances for financial aid, people are very properly concerned about their income security right now,” said Gerrard.

The province has pledge relief of some sort is coming for those affected, and says an announcement in that regard is coming next week.

But it remains unclear what that relief will be, and how exactly it will help workers suddenly laid off — who are now left with few options other than applying for employment insurance.

For many in the service industry, any relief will be too late, notes Jeff Bray with the Downtown Victoria Business Association.

“For many people in the hospitality sector, they work pay cheque to pay cheque,” said Bray.

While restaurant patios are still open, along with takeout and delivery, in order to help blunt the pain — at least for businesses — the DVBA has extended a program to encourage folks to order delivery, and not use third-party delivery services that reduce the profits of local Victoria restaurants.

Instead, folks can use a local app called Tutti, which has partnered with the DVBA, and allows people to order food without the expense of a delivery service.

“We cover the cost of the driver, but we also cover the cost of the commission that the restaurant would otherwise pay,” said Bray.

Although the province has resisted regional approaches to most restrictions, the DVBA notes it is now taking a regional approach to recreational businesses — shutting down Whistler-Blackcomb, but keeping resorts like Mount Washington open. With Vancouver Island suffering a small fraction of B.C.’s total COVID-19 cases, the DVBA thinks a regional approach to shuttering indoor dining makes sense too.

“Do we really need to have provincewide restrictions for regions that are a very small proportion of the cases?” questioned Bray.

That idea hasn’t gained traction yet and was rejected by Health Minister Adrian Dix on Wednesday.

What worries many local restaurants and their staff is that the current restrictions — set to expire in three weeks – will continue for longer. It’s a concern identified by Christopher Mavrikos, who runs Romeo’s restaurant on Victoria’s Hillside Avenue.

“Honestly, if I was betting, five to six [weeks], and that could be the end for a lot of places,” said Mavrikos.

The province said Wednesday, it will revisit the length of the indoor dining ban once it has a chance to see if case counts are dropping.