Amid surging COVID-19 case numbers and evolving public health guidance, British Columbia’s restaurants are having a hard time keeping their doors open.
Many businesses in the province’s hospitality sector were already short staffed due to an ongoing labour shortage in the province.
With the Omicron variant driving record numbers of new cases daily, some, like Vancouver’s Autostrada Osteria, have been forced to close at a busy time of the year they would normally rely on to get through the lean months of January and February.
Co-owner Dustin Dockendorf said all three of the restaurant’s locations have been voluntarily closed since Dec. 23, after multiple staff tested positive. There were no outbreaks or anything connecting the cases, he said.
COVID-19 testing and self-isolation exacerbate B.C. labour shortage
“It’s a significant hit because January is often our slowest month,” Dockendorf said.
“Financially, we’ll lose about 25 per cent of our revenue for the period going into our slowest time of year. January rent won’t be a problem but February is where it gets tricky.”
With B.C.’s testing facilities operating at full capacity, the province has begun to triage testing, reserving PCR tests for those most at risk.
People with mild symptoms and who aren’t in a high-risk category have been told to act as if they have COVID-19 and self-isolate for seven days if double-vaccinated.
That’s further put pressure on restaurateurs, who say the evolving guidance has both been frustrating and confusing.
“There is so much info out there now our teams are having a hard time navigating it with good conscience,” Dockendorf said.
“If you’re living with someone who is COVID-positive, but you have no symptoms, we have one document that says come back to work, you have a nurse say absolutely do not go back to work when (staff) go to get their test.”
Mike Jeffs, co-owner of Nook restaurants, said his business voluntarily closed early a week before Christmas after some staff tested positive and others were uncertain.
“It wasn’t easy for people to get tested, and I don’t think anyone felt good about coming to work with that many people that they’d worked with testing positive, so we just pulled the ‘chute a little bit early,” Jeffs said.
“It was before Christmas. The last thing we wanted to do was to get all of our staff sick.”
Jeffs said staff want to work, and the restaurant has since procured rapid antigen tests, but that getting more has been difficult and the restaurant is going through their supply quickly.
Omicron surge worsens labour shortages
“It’s never been easy to get a test here. It’s been very difficult and it’s got increasingly harder,” he said. “The staff, they want to know. They don’t want to get people sick, they don’t want to get sick themselves.”
Asked Wednesday about growing staffing problems, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province was looking closely at new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reducing self-isolation time to five days.
The province has also updated guidance so that vaccinated people who were close contacts with a positive case do not need to self-isolate, she said, but acknowledged businesses would still face challenges.
“It is a reality that for some businesses, if they have a lot of people off sick, who aren’t able to work, they’ll need to find ways to have either additional staff or they may need to close, and this has been a reality throughout this pandemic.”
With many restaurants already understaffed and having trouble hiring, that likely means the latter, Jeffs said.
“There’s no one extra to work, so if you can’t make your shift we just go with less people,” he said.
“At some point we may just have to pull the ‘chute on everything and be closed for a few days.”
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