Restaurant workers and owners are back where they were in March of 2020 — and the future of their industry is similarly in doubt. This time around, they have the benefit of hindsight, a more detailed understanding of COVID-19, vaccinations, and a supply of masks (plus, the emotional armour from having dealt with the maddening rotation of opening and closing so many times over the past 21 months).
What they don’t have is government support. They are without the benefit of a federal or, at least in Ontario, provincial government that has endured or learned alongside its citizens.
Like many people, I was baffled by the CBC News headline: “A new COVID benefit is now in effect, but no one can access it.” In short, Canada has a new wage support, the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit. But the CWLB (which replaces the CRB, which replaced the CERB, and totals $300 per week) is only available to people who are unable to work due to a lockdown. The catch is, no region is officially in a lockdown.
Instead, as the Omicron variant hits the province, we’ve seen a repeat of those first pandemic weeks — as conscientious leaders in the restaurant industry, accurately predicting that Ontario would not mandate their closure to stem the rise of Omicron, chose to do so voluntarily. Or they had outbreaks in their workplaces, as was predicted due to the variant’s high transmissibility. Or they took a preemptive measure to make sure that employees would not lose out on celebrating the holidays with their families because they were in close contact with a diner who tested positive. The 50 per cent capacity limits imposed by the province, they reasoned, were not going to stop Omicron ripping through staff members.
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At the beginning of December, Restaurants Canada reported that 80 per cent of restaurants are losing money or just breaking even. These places were depending on strong holiday sales to limp over the calendar’s finish line. Yet at the busiest time of year, small business owners are choosing to cut their own economic throats rather than host diners unsafely. And in exchange for doing the right thing, they are being left to twist in the wind. Again.
After nearly two years, restaurant workers and owners are still being forced to make decisions vital to personal and public health. Absent of political action, the government has downloaded this responsibility to cooks, servers, hosts, bartenders, dishwashers, and their employers.
As a result workers have once again seen their shifts cancelled, their earning expectations evaporated. Owners are looking at their stock of perishables, trying to calculate how much will have to be given away with no hope of recouping the investment. All of them are more prepared to do this than they were the first time, because this isn’t their first ride on the pandemic merry-go-round. But that doesn’t make it easier, and it doesn’t pay their rent.
As individuals, we have learned so much since the Spring of 2020. Some of us learned to cook or how to order directly from restaurants so they don’t incur the commissions from third party delivery apps. Some of us learned to communicate more openly with our spouses, or how to hire a divorce lawyer. Some of us learned to manage our anxiety, to find appreciation in small moments, to ask for help, or to scrape the mold that can form at the seal between our sink and counter.
None of us wanted to learn any of this. We had no choice.
Meanwhile, our federal and provincial leaders seemed to have learned nothing. Certainly not the fragility of our emotional state, or how close so many of us are to insolvency.
Either Canada needs to amend the language of the CWLB to make it accessible to workers the way the CERB was, or provinces need to enact lockdown restrictions. If we don’t, we are accepting that this wave, which we had all the time to plan for, will impoverish workers and close small businesses for good.
Editors note: After this column was posted, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland announced that supports would be extended to any business whose capacity has been restricted by 50 per cent or more, as well as workers who have lost 50 per cent or more of their income.