The problems for restaurants won’t end when capacity limits are lifted

OPINION: Bars and restaurants will soon see the end of the capacity limits they’ve chafed under for so long. But lifting restrictions won’t solve their labour issues
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 14, 2021
In September 2021, the food and accommodation industry employed 180,000 fewer workers than it had before the pandemic (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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From delivery-only to deliverance: Ontario restaurants will soon be able to shake off the last of the limits on indoor-dining capacity they’ve been labouring under, in one form or another, since the pandemic began. CBC reported Wednesday that Premier Doug Ford will announce the exit from Step 3 of the province’s reopening process next week, likely just as the smartphone-based vaccine passport is released. The province’s exit from Step 3 was delayed when the daily COVID-19 case count (and ICU admissions) started climbing again at the end of August, but, for now, the fourth pandemic wave seems to be receding, and the government is more confident that future waves will be easier to manage, though it is once again signalling that the pandemic isn’t over and that some measures (such as indoor masking) will be around for some time yet.

For restaurants and other small businesses that have been working with substantial capacity limits (for longer, they’ll be happy to tell you, than their counterparts anywhere else in Canada/North America/the world/the observable universe), this is undoubtedly a blessing. It’s odd that much of the debate around vaccine passports has focused on whether they’ll increase the rate of people seeking out first doses — which they’ve done, with some success — when the most obvious benefit of a passably rigorous system was always going to be that it could reduce the odds of major outbreaks from higher-risk settings. Even if the passport system hadn’t prodded anybody into getting their shots, it would have been worth doing for that reason. It would have been worth doing sooner, but the government had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward the inevitable.

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So, capacity limits at bars, restaurants, and numerous other service-sector businesses will be lifted — though, per the CBC’s reporting, the government will retain the right to impose new measures if regional outbreaks occur. Restaurants that have been surviving on delivery, takeout, and, in some cases, patio dining will be able to capitalize on the colder weather pushing more people indoors for social gatherings.

If only this were the last of their problems, and ours. A new analysis by David Macdonald of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives indicates that, even after capacity limits are lifted, restaurants and bars could struggle to find the most basic input to a service-sector business: workers.

Macdonald notes that, while Canada recovered its pre-pandemic number of total employed workers last month, that top-line number hides a major realignment within the workforce: “The sector that took the biggest hit during the pandemic was the food and accommodation industry ... In September 2021, it still employed 180,000 fewer workers than it did pre-pandemic (February 2020).” Macdonald suggests, based on Statistics Canada data, that many former restaurant, bar, and personal-service workers have moved into other sectors altogether and may not be willing to be wooed back into demanding, low-wage jobs.

(Having talked about the pros of vaccine passports, this is an undeniable con: the servers and other workers who need to enforce vaccine-passport rules, as they have also had to enforce masking rules, have legitimately had their jobs made worse by a public-health necessity.)

It's worth revisiting an argument that has featured prominently throughout the pandemic: as much as many people want a “return to normal,” for a great many people, “normal” wasn’t so hot. It’s not even a little surprising that a lot of people who might not have loved their jobs in the service sector were pushed by the pandemic to look for something else. They might actually have found something they like more.

For the restaurant industry, and other businesses that rely on low-wage labour, there will be numerous ways to cope with this problem over the coming months and years. Large fast-food chains can continue investing in automation, and higher-end restaurants will likely be able to raise prices at least a little to retain valued workers. That leaves many restaurants — too small to invest heavily in automation but without sufficient cachet to raise their prices without losing business — in an unenviable position.

It's obviously possible to over-react to what may just be a temporary shock to the system. If nothing else, there are new young workers every year looking to get their start in the kind of jobs that tend to work around such things as school schedules. There’s a reason serving is a classic pairing with university and college.

But there’s no guarantee the future will look like the past, even after we get back to whatever the new normal is.

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