On March 16, 2020 the Tofitian closed its doors until further notice due to COVID-19. (Nora O’Malley/Tofino-Ucluelet Westerly News)

COVID-19

COVID-19: B.C. restaurants can host dine-in guests again, but what will that look like?

As B.C.’s COVID-19 reopening plan enters Phase Two on Tuesday, restaurants have some challenges ahead

Restaurant owners across the province have been given the green light to begin again inviting guests to enjoy scrumptious meals while sitting inside their brick-and-mortar establishments beginning Tuesday.

But as we prepare to take advantage of this sliver of normalcy – a part of daily life that came to a halt two months ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic – restaurateurs are now having to work against the clock to ensure safety for their employees and guests, while also not digging themselves into a deeper financial hole.

“A lot of this is going to be the business’s ability to socially distance throughout their premise, make sure that they double-down on hygiene and they avoid things like lineups… but pretty much, it’s kind of common sense,” said Ian Tostenson, CEO of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association (BCRFA).

In a phone interview with Black Press Media, Tostenson said that this next phase in the ongoing pandemic will certainly be tough for some business owners, dependent on the level of support they receive from individual city leaders and community members.

On Friday (May 15), WorkSafe BC released guidelines for what restaurants and cafes will need to do in order to reopen for dine-in guests. Since early March, these establishments have been only allowed to sell their food as takeout or delivery.

COVID-19: Here’s a phase-by-phase look at how B.C. hopes to re-open parts of society

It comes as no surprise that many will be eager to do what they can to start bringing in more revenue. As many as 180,000 of the sector’s 190,000 workers are unemployed, according to Statistics Canada unemployment data.

Tostenson, along with the BCRFA and restaurateurs from around the province helped create the initial blueprint presented to the province and WorkSafe BC for how sit-down restaurants can be reintroduced back into society.

“Most restaurants are small, little restaurants and you can’t make this process complicated,” Tostenson said, adding that some regions may not have quick access to material like plexiglass or personal protective equipment.

“You’re going to see all sorts of innovation that’s not so much prescriptive from the government.”

Many restaurants have closed in response to COVID-19. (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)

Restaurant owners are required to develop a COVID-19 safety plan, which must be posted publicly at the worksite. While WorkSafe BC won’t be reviewing or approving plans of individual employers before restaurants open, there will be inspections, health officials have said.

There are a number of suggestions employers have been asked to consider before dine-in guests can be welcomed inside, including ensuring that a two-metre distance is maintained between tables, factoring in space for seats, and constructing physical barriers between booths.

Restaurants will be limited to 50 per cent of their usual occupancy and guests will only be allowed to sit in small groups of two to six people. Business owners will need to calculate how many tables will fit into their space to determine their occupancy.

One person from each table will be required to give their contact information to the restaurant, to be kept on record for 30 days, in case someone tests positive for COVID-19.

Owners have also been told to ensure that staff practise good hygiene and establish frequent cleaning protocols.

Other interesting protocols WorkSafe BC have recommended employers consider, include:

  • Rearrange waiting areas, such as by removing chairs and benches, asking guests to wait outside for a table, posting signs, stanchions and tape on floor.
  • Consider adding a plexiglass barrier at the bar and payment areas.
  • Have guests pour their own water by providing water in a bottle or jug at the table, or, pre-pour water glasses at the bar.
  • Avoid touching coffee cups when refilling.
  • If customers ask to take unfinished food with them, provide packaging and let the customer put the food into the container.
  • Use digital menus boards, large chalkboards, or online pre-ordering alternatives instead of traditional menus. If this is not possible, consider single-use disposable menus.
  • Have sanitizer available to customers and staff. Install additional dispensers as needed.
  • Consider creating cohorts of workers who work together and who do not interact with other cohorts. This will assist in reducing transmission throughout the workplace in the event that a staff member becomes ill.

Smaller restaurants or cafes may face more barriers than larger establishments

Physical space will likely be the biggest determinant for which restaurants will be able to open sooner and with more ease, Tostenson admitted.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has acknowledged that the initial reopening restrictions will be limiting for some businesses in what she routinely refers to as an “incredibly challenging time” across the country.

“We know that we need to restrict the number of people that come together in a closed space right now,” she told reporters on Saturday (May 16). The ban on gatherings larger than 50 people still remains in place.

“For some restaurants that just won’t be physically possible given their layout. For many they will be able to have a mixture of takeout and in-place dining.”

ALSO READ: Pandemic an opportunity for B.C. wineries to reset, reinvent

Henry added that transmission rates still aren’t at the level where it is safe to have many people gathering in an indoor environment and sharing food.

“It’s not safe for the people in there who are coming together in groups but we also need to make sure it is safe for the employees – so our serving staff, the kitchen staff.”

But the foodservice association has put forward one particular solution which Tostenson believes could solve spacial concerns: curb-side patios.

In this Thursday, May 14, 2020 photo, a server in downtown Las Vegas, helps a customer. The business moved tables to the sidewalk in front of the restaurant after The City of Las Vegas temporarily allowed outdoor dining on public sidewalks. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP)

While smaller establishments outside of the major cities – such as hyper-local Mom and Pop eateries – may be dealing with significantly smaller reopening budgets, they have the upper-hand when it comes to ample street space, Tostenson said.

“Restaurants in those communities – there are fewer of them – but they are the heart and soul of the DNA of those communities,” Tostenson said.

“I really think that rural B.C. is going to have a lot of really great ways in approaching this [the guidelines].”

With longer days and warmer weather on the horizon, rezoning sidewalks and streets to allow for make-shift patios would give wiggle room for restaurateurs in the near future.

That is, as long as city leaders can get on board.

The association, along with a number of other groups such as the BC Craft Brewers Guild, has penned a letter to all mayors and councillors across the province requesting expedited patio permitting and rezoning.

Henry has said that she supports outdoor seating because it is harder to transmit COVID-19 while outdoors.

Premier backs proposition for liquor discount for restaurants

In addition to pushing for flexible patio regulations, Tostenson and the association recently received welcomed news from the province when it comes to liquor permits and wholesale pricing.

Last week, Premier John Horgan instructed Attorney General David Eby to “move quickly on clearing liquor-related roadblocks for restaurants,” the association confirmed in a May 8 newsletter.

This includes allowing restaurants to purchase liquor at wholesale prices and supporting expedited provincial approval for expanded outdoor liquor services – a necessity for most owners to provide patio seating.

Building customer confidence will be an over-arching theme

Once the logistics of physical distancing and safety barriers are sorted, restaurants big and small will all have to play a role in building back customer confidence, Tostenson said.

Although he believes restaurant owners who don’t follow the provincial health regulations will be far and few between, Tostenson added that social media will easily play a big role in holding eateries accountable.

“No one has tolerance for people that are doing this the wrong way,” he said. “Any restaurant that puts the public at risk is going to be outed, reported and dealt with pretty quick.”

ALSO READ: Peer pressure, public messaging will affect behaviour when rules loosen: experts

The association is currently creating an online safety course, which employers and management will be able to take to show the business is taking these safety protocols seriously. Those who get through the course will get a sticker they can put on the restaurant’s front window.

It’s just one way Tostenson believes will help ease people’s minds amid the reality that concerns of contracting COVID-19 won’t be abolished until their is a vaccine.

“Don’t be shy about over-sharing your food safety messaging to your customer base. Customers want to see what you are doing differently.”


@ashwadhwani
ashley.wadhwani@bpdigital.ca

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