On Tuesday, a bar I used to eat and drink at in my younger, less-hectic days announced it was closing up shop, effective immediately and for good. It had hung on through the first wave and been busy during the summer but just couldn’t make a go of it this fall. It wasn’t the new modified Stage 2 restrictions that did it; the bar isn’t in one of the hotspots partially rolled back by Premier Doug Ford and his government last week. It just wasn’t able to stay open.
The COVID-19 pandemic has landed on us all very unevenly. This is true in the most literal and bitter sense, of course: the virus kills the old and vulnerable with cruel efficiency, while many of us survive with a few sniffles. Families that lose a loved one will feel that loss forever.
The economics are similarly unequal. Some of us haven’t lost a day’s pay. Others have seen their entire livelihood devastated. The province’s hospitality industry is one of those lopsided victims, absorbing its share of the economic pain and then some. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost during the first wave, as were billions in revenue, according to the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association. Those kinds of numbers are hard to comprehend, as an infamous Soviet strongman once noted. But when a local watering hole you actually enjoyed spending time in closes down, you feel that loss, even as just a customer.
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How much sharper must the loss be for those who poured their life’s work into a restaurant or bar? How much crueller if it was entirely attributable to the pandemic, something that no business owner could reasonably have foreseen or planned for? Imagine spending many years building a thriving business in a notoriously competitive environment only to lose it thanks to a once-in-a-century bolt-from-the-blue.
I have a few friends who own hospitality businesses or work in them in senior roles. And we all know people who got their first paying job pulling pints or waiting tables. Hospitality-sector work is hard. The hours are long. The work is tiring. The customers can often be testy or unreasonably demanding. The industry is intensely cut-throat. Margins are razor thin and costs high. To be frank with you all, opening a restaurant or bar has always seemed to me an act of madness. It’s an enormously steep hill to climb.
But we love them. Spending on restaurants has risen steadily in recent years. Spending on dinner out (or food ordered in) is the Canadian public’s top self-identified indulgence, and that’s certainly true in my household. In a broader sense, there’s also the community impact of a gathering place open to all. Pubs sponsor local hockey teams and host game nights and community clubs. I’ve often wondered if, in some ways, the local restaurant has come to serve much the same role houses of worship once did in terms of providing a gathering place and sense of community. My Baptist ancestors would probably be horrified at the notion of a beer-soaked sports bar being a 21st-century church, but what else fills that role today?
I do not fret for the future of restaurants in a general sense. The pandemic may well change many things forever; the human fondness for gathering in a place to be served food and drink won’t be one of them. Once COVID-19 is behind us, things we actually miss will come roaring back. It would not be shocking if the pandemic ended up destroying or at least dramatically reducing the movie-theatre industry — for example, by turning it something more akin to a niche experience, like going out to see a live band. (That process was arguably underway even before COVID-19.) I can also see some of the choices about how and where we work, and where we choose to live accordingly, undergoing a significant structural change post-pandemic.
A place to buy a beer, though? There’s always going to be some version of that, even if many of the ones open today fail and shut down before this is over. Crowded downtown offices may take years to bounce back, but the corner pub won’t.
But … I like my corner pub. The existing one. Just the way it is. I like the people who own it and work there. It’s a strange kind of perfect just the way it is. And I want it to stay in business. I’ve suffered less than most during the past seven months, but when I find myself yearning for “normal,” I’m thinking of two things: being able to go to a hockey rink to watch either my six-year-old son or the Maple Leafs play (the difference, depressingly, is not always easily discerned), or popping into my local for a beer without having to worry about a death plague or a new modified protocol. If I could have those back, hassle-free, things would be mostly fine.
There isn’t much I can do to hurry along a vaccine. I’m already doing all I can do to flatten the curve. But I can try to keep my local favourites — there are two in particular — in business during these weird times. So we order in more than we used to, and more than my cholesterol level and bank balance suggest is wise.
A few pounds of wings and a burger may be what it takes to keep these places open. It’s a strange way to do one’s part in a national emergency, and certainly a lot less than some of my forebearers had to do. That’s no excuse not to help, though. When this is over, I want these places to be there waiting for me. So, yes, a weekly takeout night will be our way of helping out. I hope it works.