‘Our social responsibility’: Thunder Bay restaurants face a difficult choice

Many restaurants in the province are fighting to stay open. In Thunder Bay, some restaurants are shutting their dining rooms even though they don’t have to
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Dec 04, 2020
Thunder Bay moved from the green stage to the yellow stage of the provincial COVID-19 framework on November 20. (Charnel Anderson)

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Around this time of year, restaurants are usually bustling with holiday cheer. “Typically, Christmas is a really great season,” says Bianca Garofalo, a restaurateur in Thunder Bay. “The month of December generates a lot of revenue between parties and people out celebrating and seeing friends, and people from out of town … and that just isn’t going to happen this year.”

Garofalo — who owns Bight Restaurant & Bar and co-owns both Giorg Cucina e Barra and El Tres — is one of many restaurant operators in Thunder Bay who, in light of rising COVID-19 cases, have closed their dining rooms and are focusing on takeout and delivery — even though there is currently no public-health mandate requiring them to.

On November 20, following a relatively significant increase of COVID-19 cases in the Thunder Bay District, the Ontario government announced that the region would be moving from the green stage to the yellow stage of the provincial COVID-19 framework. The yellow, or protect, stage places additional restrictions on restaurants, such as limiting operating hours, mandating earlier last calls for alcohol serving, decreasing to six the number of people allowed to dine together, and requiring establishments to take all patrons’ contact information. The move doesn’t require restaurants to close their dining rooms. (It was announced December 4 that, at 12:01 a.m. on December 7, Thunder Bay will be moving to the orange stage, in which indoor dining is permitted with some additional restrictions.)

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Yet, at the end of November, Garofalo and her business partners made the decision to close the dining rooms of Bight Restaurant & Bar, a full-service restaurant on Thunder Bay’s waterfront, and El Tres, a Mexican eatery. (Garofalo says they’re keeping an eye on Giorg Cucina e Barra, a fine-dining Italian restaurant where customers tend to be couples that live in the same household. “It’s one of those things we evaluate day to day,” she says.)

“It was a really hard decision, because we have not yet been mandated to close by the Thunder Bay District Health Unit,” says Garofalo. But, she notes, the messaging from the government is clear: stay home. “We want to make sure everybody is safe, and if the message is ‘Don’t go out,’ then we’re going to try to participate in that social message by doing takeout and delivery instead.”

It’s also been difficult, Garofalo adds, to predict and plan for the number of patrons coming in every day, as the pandemic has upended regular business operations: “All of these things play a factor in making a major decision like closing.”

In mid-November, the Sovereign Room, a gastropub in the city’s downtown, also adjusted its business model. “We decided to close because the cases were getting pretty high in Thunder Bay,” says front-of-house manager Marie Skaf. “I didn’t want to send out the message that dining out was not safe, or anything. We just felt like it was our social responsibility to close indoor dining.”

Skaf says the Sovereign Room is operating with “a skeleton crew.” But, while the dining room is closed, they’re taking the opportunity to clean and organize the upper level of their restaurant. “Anyone that wants to continue working, we totally encourage that,” says Skaf, noting that the restaurant is receiving the federal government’s Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which covers employees’ wages up to a maximum of 65 per cent, based on how much their employer’s revenue has decreased because of the pandemic.

Garofalo says they have recently had to lay off employees — but not as many as they had to during the spring lockdown: “We’ve kept a few people at each place, but it’s a huge decrease in staff. It’s really too bad, because it’s right before Christmas, but we couldn’t keep going staying open, unfortunately.”

Relying on takeout and delivery is “not great,” Garofalo says. But “it keeps the lights on” and allows the business to take care of vital things, including ensuring its insurance doesn’t lapse. Her restaurants, she notes, have qualified for the federal wage-subsidy program, as well as the Canada Emergency Business Account (which provides interest-free loans of up to $60,000 to small businesses and non-profits), and some of her establishments have also qualified for the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy. (The latter covers commercial rent or property expenses for small-business owners who have lost revenue because of COVID-19.) “If it wasn’t for subsidies that we’ve been getting so far, I think that probably 90 per cent of restaurants, or more, would be out of business right now,” says Garofalo, adding that she’s participated in Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce round tables with other restaurateurs, all of whom “saw a dramatic dip in patronage” this year.

Before the pandemic, full-service restaurants got “about 80 per cent of their business through in-restaurant dining,” says James Rilett, vice president of Restaurants Canada’s central Canada division. “That disappeared pretty quickly in March. Now, many areas are either fully closed, or the restrictions are such that most don’t see it as worthwhile to be open. We fully expect that about 50 per cent of the industry is on the verge of closing down.”

While Rilett says that the subsidies offered by the federal government are “good,” he’s not sure they will ever be good enough. “You’re losing 80 per cent of your income right away. That’s hard to ever make up for.” (TVO.org reached out to the federal government for comment but did not receive any by publication time.)

While Garofalo believes that the loan program helped restaurant owners “pay some essential bills during the closure,” she agrees that it won’t be enough “to get people through” — and predicts that the industry won’t begin its recovery until summer 2021. “January and February are the worst months in the restaurant industry at the best of times, never mind the pandemic,” says Garofalo. “So, we have a long, cold winter ahead of us.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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