How COVID-19 has changed N.B.'s bar industry for the worse—and for better

·5 min read

O'Leary's Pub in Saint John used to be jam packed with crowds of people dancing and singing to live music.

As part of its COVID-19 recovery plan, the province allowed taprooms, pubs and bars reopened in May — as long as they promoted physical distancing. But this has meant a huge decrease in customers for some businesses.

"I've got to think of it as the glass is half full, not half empty. We'll make it through," said Kevin Ferguson, owner of O'Leary's Pub.

"If it was going to be like this in the long-term, it would not be a viable proposition for an investor."

Before the pandemic hit in March, the bar, which has three large rooms, saw well over 300 people on Friday and Saturday nights.

Now it's seeing a maximum of around 70 people — 25 people in one room and 45 in another. Most of his customers range from 25 and up. They're there to grab a drink and listen to live music.

"We have not seen a number of people because they're looking for dancing."

Photo:Facebook
Photo:Facebook

In order for people to be allowed in, customers have to give their name and number to a host at the door, in case there is a need for contact tracing by the Department of Public Health.

Then, tables need to be sanitized and customers need to wait to be seated and served where they're sitting. Whereas before, customers could just go to the bar and pay for a drink.

Another part of the job is making sure customers keep their distance.

"It's always a policing thing to make sure people are not encroaching on other people."

Once a table is done, the server collects payment, mostly using the debit machine.

Before the pandemic, the bar would shut down at 2 a.m. on weekends. These days it has gradually been extending its hours, at first closing at 11 p.m., then at 1 a.m.

"None of us really like the restrictions but it's the world we're living in and we have to adapt to it."

'Patience is a big thing'

Zach Nicholson, owner of the Capital Complex, said the downtown Fredericton bar follows similar rules.

"Patience is a big thing across the board because everything takes longer."

But COVID-19 has brought many other changes to the downtown bar.

Up to 50 people are allowed to be at one of the bar's three outdoor patios or retail store.

Photo: Facebook
Photo: Facebook

Instead of bartenders, he has more hosts and servers — who all wear masks at work.

One of the biggest changes, is the bar went from being open five days a week to seven.

"We've never had business on Sunday and Monday," he said. "We're getting different crowds and we're busier than we were anticipating."

Although the patios are typically full, Nicholson said the local business isn't seeing the same revenue as last year, in a summer without festivals.

"It's understandable why we are where we are."

Bars in charge of customers' safety

Geoffrey Downey, a spokesperson for the province's Department of Public Safety, said it's the responsibility of each business to ensure they have an operational plan in place that outlines how they will manage the safe opening and operation of their business, service, or organization.

The plan has to follow guidance and requirements under New Brunswick Public Health and WorkSafeNB. Business owners could also be asked to share the plan with authorities.

"For proprietors in the hospitality industry, for example, they need to ensure screening, distancing and sanitization, and keep records of their patrons," Downey said in an emailed statement.

Photo: Facebook
Photo: Facebook

"When peace officers encounter instances of non-compliance, they encourage voluntary compliance. Where compliance can't be achieved through dialogue and education, violators may be subject to fines under the Emergency Measures Act or, for licensed establishments, to licence sanctions."

In Quebec, bars and nightclubs reopened at the beginning of July and the province has already threatened to shut them down after discovering a spike in COVID-19 cases was detected in Montreal's South Shore.

After being closed for more than three months because of COVID-19, nightclubs there have had to completely change gears in order to respect the province's safety guidelines.

This means that, among other things, dancing isn't allowed, and clients have to remain seated.

Most nightclubs in Quebec have installed stools and tables on what used to be their dance floor. Some owners have also decided to go even further than the measures imposed by health authorities and will require customers to wear a mask and undergo temperature checks upon entering.

Masks not always possible in bars

In order to ensure physical distancing is possible, many nightclubs have also had to let fewer people in.

"After a couple of drinks, your judgment goes and we're already starved for human contact," said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

"That was the experience in Montreal. Rowdy patrons were getting angry about the physical distancing rules."

If everyone wore a mask inside the bar, Furness said the facilities would be a lot safer. But it's not always possible because people are drinking, eating and conversing.

University of Toronto
University of Toronto

But he did recommend patios being set up outside the facility, where people can be seated at a distance in well-ventilated conditions to lower the risk of the respiratory virus.

"In the big picture, we can have everything we want in COVID-19, except plane travel, international travel and bars," he said. "If we eliminated those things and wore masks, we would go sailing in this pandemic."

Furness said 20 per cent of COVID-19 cases are serious and can infiltrate the brain and cause lung damage.

"It's not worth going to the bar for that."