Lockdowns are killing the Canadian restaurant industry

"Never in my life have I ever been so angry, disappointed, sad, and frustrated with people - we're so divided now. I hate to say I'm beginning to lose hope it can ever go back to how it was before."

-Will Trow, owner, Bar von der Fels, Calgary

A notion that used to otherwise be widely accepted and obvious: the government is a public servant who works for the people. Should you at any point whole heartedly believe the government:

  • is here to help

  • has your best interests at heart

  • is responsible for your financial solvency

Please verse yourself on the meaning of democracy: "a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections."

We find ourselves in a reality no one could have fathomed would carry on for over a year. With every further government precaution come dizzying levels of disbelief. Today, Australia hosted its first Aussie Rules season opener of 2021 in an arena housing 54,000 attendees while Doug Ford announced the shuttering of playgrounds, Ontario wide. If your response is a maniacal mixture of laughter and tears, you're not alone.

Incompetence prevails, while small businesses continue to suffer, flail, fledge and close. Hospitality continues to be the target and blame for COVID transmissions, namely restaurants.

In January 2021, The Daily Hive posted an article stating, "Restaurants Canada has reported that 10,000 restaurants across the country have closed due to the effects of COVID-19, and 50% are expected to close for good if there is no improvement."

Andreas Batten, server at FIGO restaurant in downtown Toronto, has been laid off four times in the last year, amidst the constant lockdown waffling. "Not a single case was ever traced back to the restaurant. The health authorities should focus on contact tracing in all industries, rather than shutting down those that are not linked to transmission. The up and down emotional experience of never knowing whether you're going to be employed in a week's time or not is devastating. The emotional impact, the sense that things are spiraling out of control, is a feeling that severely damages the psyche. It places people in a position of dependence, rather than independence, which then has its own psychological impacts on top of already being unemployed. You lose hope, and energy, to find a way to secure meaningful employment in a space where you may not have the skillset required to qualify for another job."

Batten is not alone in his sense of despair and fear for the future of hospitality.

Laura Major, restaurant owner in Kelowna, BC, recently wrote a letter to digital news site, Castanet, with pleas for change and more equitable treatment of hospitality, "Restaurants are being targeted as the “source” of COVID infections because we are one of the only industries required to provide contact tracing. Someone with COVID could have gone to Ikea, Home Depot, the mall food court, Shoppers Drug Mart, any grocery store - yet, it’s the restaurant that took their detailed information that will be forced to close and deemed responsible for the infection. You want to blame restaurants for the spread after thousands of dollars investing in equipment, training and stricter policies than anywhere else? Prove it!"

Major's sentiments resonated with many, with the letter going viral on social media, celebrated for its unapologetic and fearless statements.

Toronto restaurant owner, Ian Stoddart of East End Vine, agreed whole heartedly with Major's observations, and mused, "The never ending lockdowns have had a great impact on not only myself, but also my business. I have been on board with the idea that lockdowns can help flatten the spread of COVID. Yet, the last lockdown did not sit well with me. What frustrated me was the total lack of consideration for restaurant owners who - two weeks prior - were given the green light to open their patios. This came after several doctors and specialists stated that outdoor dining was not of great concern towards the spread of the virus (if all safety measures were followed by the proprietor).

Two things stood out to me as a total lack of real organization and consideration. One, the lack of notice we had with the announcement of opening patios. I was scrambling to organize myself to open our outdoor space. Second, the total lack of consideration by suddenly closing our patios down on Easter weekend while malls and large box stores profited off of people eager to escape their homes - all indoors, might I add.

The lack of organization and honest consideration towards small business astounds me to no end. I am not covered by EI, nor do I qualify for the small business loan (new business can't apply), which means I rely heavily on my sales to keep a roof over my head and food on my plate. When the government is wishy-washy on opening and closing our small businesses it leaves me disgruntled and lacking any trust towards our provincial government."

CTV news recently reported the number of Canadians on the brink of financial insolvency has reached a five-year high, with more than half of people $200 or less away from being unable able to meet their financial obligations each month, according to a recent survey.

"As pandemic-related financial support and loan deferral programs slow down and ongoing economic disruptions impact household incomes, 30 per cent of Canadians say they are already insolvent, with no money left at the end of the month to cover their payments, according to the latest MNP Consumer Debt Index."

Abo Akintan, M.D., of Albany Medical Clinic in Toronto, feels there's a balance to be struck. Akintan stresses the importance of following public health and safety guidelines, as they help keep us safe, and secure the longevity of our healthcare system. However, she feels it's also crucial to weigh those measures against the impact that have taken their toll on mental health, and other aspects of the healthcare system.

"When the pandemic started, we all approached it with an optimistic outlook that if we did our part, things would get better. Unfortunately, as the months and then year went by, many of us have had to dig into our emotional reserves, and as the additional months went on, we depleted those reserves. The usual coping mechanisms we use to recharge and refuel are not available - so now we find ourselves burnt out.

We are seeing a significant rise in mental health related medical visits. Anxiety levels are at alarming rates. The cost on the health care system, from high number of medical visits, increased number of diagnostic tests ordered, increased number of specialist referrals made - cumulate to a collection of symptoms that ultimately are a result of anxiety - has to also be factored into the calculation of the benefits of continued pandemic public health measures and the toll COVID admissions are taking on the system."

Akintan notes that isolation, and constant consumption of information - that is for the most part negative - has a tremendous impact on our psyche. "Many livelihoods have been destroyed and many industries will not survive even after the pandemic is over. The aftermath of the pandemic and the impact it will have on human behaviour and socialization is yet to be seen, but undoubtedly, we will all fundamentally have been changed in one way or the other."

Dr. Martha Fulford, Infectious diseases specialist, McMaster University, echoes Akintan's thoughts, in a recent Global news interview, where concerns were raised over the collateral damage of extended lockdowns.

"It does feel a bit like a repeat from a year ago. I'm not alone in wondering whether this is the best approach, or if we could have gone for something more targeted. There is a lot of collateral damage - how do we balance the harms of COVID with the harms of lockdowns? Who's at risk? Where is the transmission happening? We are unquestionably seeing huge mental health problems, a lot of eating disorders, an increase in suicidality. This deserves formal study. Sometimes there's a tendency to want to brush this under the table. It's across our population and it's a balance that we have to strike - how do we balance COVID against the other issues? Absolute numbers in our population are not that high. What about the future? COVID isn't going away. To think we'll have zero cases, that is a fantasy. Are we never going to open up? Are never going to allow people to travel? What's the balance?"

The Lancet Public Health, a global leader on research in public health, conducted a study on lessons to be learned from New Zealand's COVID outbreak response. Their findings highlighted the highest incidence of transmission having occurred in popular tourist areas and, "large transmission events such as weddings led to transmission chains containing multiple age groups. Similar dynamics have been reported elsewhere—eg, in Europe where young adults were infected upon visiting ski resorts and returned with the infection to their countries."

Further, studies showed that, "identifying transmission chains before they spill over into vulnerable populations relied on detecting new importations, finding existing transmission chains through widespread testing and contact tracing, and isolating new cases and quarantining their contacts. The lockdown implemented in New Zealand was remarkable for its stringency and its brevity."

Their findings also further highlighted that "long-lasting lockdowns also cause major economic disruption, deterioration of mental health in the population, and other indirect health consequences, ultimately decreasing population compliance. The experience of New Zealand highlights that successful non-pharmaceutical interventions rely on early decisive reactions from health authorities, performant surveillance systems, and targeted testing strategies as much as stringency."

In no other industry would we ever expect owners to withstand the amount of waffling restaurant proprietors have had to in the last year.

If you're passionate about wine, food and dining out, it's imperative to reach out to your local MP and demand that lockdowns of restaurants and their closures end now. When the COVID storm inevitably passes - where do you plan to celebrate? If your answer is a restaurant, take action.