Restaurants in Saskatchewan are being allowed to stay open, but at a much reduced capacity.
In the meantime, the province is telling people to stay home.
That's a recipe for disaster for the hospitality industry, says Dale MacKay, owner of Grassroots Restaurant Group.
"I think it's very shortsighted for this provincial government to think that they're helping the economy right now, because it's really not," said MacKay, whose group has four restaurants in the province, including Regina's Avenue and Saskatoon's Ayden.
"It's just killing the restaurant industry specifically."
MacKay said in the summer, restaurants could survive — with help along with government programs — under restrictions that allowed 50 per cent occupancy.
But the latest restrictions imposed to fight the spread of COVID-19 in the province say restaurants and bars can seat only four people at a table. Tables must be two metres apart if there's a barrier between them, or three metres apart without, and all guest and reservation information must be kept.
The new rules effectively bring that capacity rate down to 25 per cent and subsidies have gone down for businesses, MacKay told The Morning Edition's Stefani Langenegger.
"We're basically just being kind of bled out in the restaurant industry because we're not being able to operate and give people the experience they want — which is obviously understandable. We're in the middle of a pandemic," he said.
"We have to take precautions and stuff. But we're being put in a situation where we're not even able to break even. We're being put in a position where we're losing money."
The people suffering the most are his employees, many of whom have been with him for years, he said.
"We're slowly letting them all go or we're basically giving them not enough shifts to live a regular life to pay their rent," MacKay said.
"And if I let a bunch of cooks go or front of the house people go, there's no jobs for them to go to. There's no other restaurant they can go to because we're all in the same situation."
MacKay said if there isn't a mandatory shutdown, restaurants can't just temporarily lay off employees.
Instead, he said they would have to pay out severance, only to hire the staff back in a few weeks.
"So you're basically bankrupting a bunch of businesses, because they can't essentially just lay them off temporarily, which was what we were allowed to do at the beginning of the shutdown in March.
"We were allowed to temporary lay off and then we would hire them all back and they would be able to collect CERB [the Canada emergency response benefit]."
The Saskatchewan government said the province has not changed the rules for temporary layoffs during the pandemic.
"Businesses, like restaurants are still permitted to temporarily layoff their staff when needed and do not have to give notice or pay instead of notice during a public emergency," said Gladys Wasylenchuk, spokesperson for Labour Relations and Workplace Safety, in an email.
"This measure provides businesses, like restaurants, the opportunity to remain viable despite the negative impacts of COVID-19. Employees temporarily laid off are able to apply for employment insurance."
Wasylenchuk said businesses can get clarification on employment standards regulations by calling 1-800-667-1783.
Danielle DeGuire, a server in the Riversdale area in Saskatoon, said a lot of people working in hospitality feel like they're stuck between a rock and a hard place.
"It's been really tough out there, for both bosses and employees," DeGuire said.
She said she can't quit, because doing so would mean she wouldn't qualify for benefits.
"And yes, I totally know that my bosses can't just go ahead and close because that does put them in a really tough spot as well," she said. "They're trying to do what they can for us. They're trying to turn us into drivers for delivery and have phone shifts for us. But there's only so much of that to go around as well."
DeGuire said she is lucky to be getting shifts, but the sales aren't there and neither are the tips. Many of her friends that work in the hospitality industry haven't even been that fortunate.
"Some of my friends will show up to work and get sent home after an hour," she said. "How can you possibly make ends meet in that regard if you don't get the shift or the tips?"
With so many COVID-19 cases in the province, it's stressful whether you are busy or not, she said.
When it is busy, "I'm so grateful for this evening to have made a little bit of money. But then I'm like, actually, it was really scary to work that shift."
DeGuire said she would probably be better off if the restaurant closed and she was able to get some guaranteed income from CERB.
"At least I would have this guaranteed income to know that my bills are paid every month. It wouldn't be that much money, that's for sure. But it be something that I can lean on, right?"
Aleana Young, NDP MLA for Regina University, said it is "the worst of both worlds right now" for people working in the restaurant sector and other small businesses.
"[You] have to stay open, have to keep the lights on, but they're essentially operating at a loss," said Young, who owns a small retail business.
She said the government needs to hear from restaurant and other business owners to see what they need.
"The margins in operating a small business aren't massive to begin with," Young said.
"We can't pretend that the economy is open and flourishing if businesses are being forced due to circumstance, and due to, I think, really unclear in chaotic regulations and restrictions, to essentially operate at a loss. Twenty-five per cent isn't open. It's 75 per cent closed."
MacKay said it will be stressful for a lot of business owners and employees as December is usually their biggest month, followed by lean months in January and February.
He understands these are hard decisions, but points out other provinces have gone into broader shutdowns.
The province could put in targeted subsidies to help small businesses, he said.
"The provincial government can step up and not just wait for the federal government to do everything."
In the meantime, restaurants are trying to stay positive, and with vaccination underway, there is now a light at the end of the tunnel.
"I think the fact that people are staying home is a good testament of Saskatchewan people taking this seriously. And I think that's great," he said.
"But I think our government needs to step up and make some hard decisions.… The elections are over. So now it's time to grow a pair and actually do some work for the people."
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