Hospitality businesses seek financial aid, bemoan lack of notice about shutdowns

By Catherine Griwkowsky May 13, 2021

Business groups are calling for greater financial support for restaurants and other service industries that have borne the brunt of public-health measures — and are still being hit the hardest amid the latest round of restrictions.

Premier Jason Kenney told reporters on Tuesday that indoor dining is a long way off.

“I don’t think it’s realistic that people will be eating in restaurants at the end of May,” he said.

Restaurant owner Katy Ingraham repeated the word “frustration” when she described the province’s response to the pandemic — in particular the UCP’s recent move to shutter restaurants with just five days notice, despite Kenney promising to provide a two-week window in the past.

Ingraham permanently shuttered Edmonton’s popular 50-seat restaurant Cartago in March. Her new venture, Fleisch Deli, which opened in the middle of the pandemic, closed to in-person dining prior to government-mandated orders. Ingraham said she couldn’t tell workers if or when they would have a job to come back to.

“That’s tragic and terrifying,” she said in an interview with AB Today.

Ingraham — who has advocated for restaurants through the Edmonton Independent Hospitality Community and for employees through the Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition — said the hospitality industry needed a heads up about closures, not only to prevent inventory spoilage, but also to give staff as much notice as possible at a time when EI processing waits have lagged between four to six weeks.

“I feel like it’s extremely disrespectful to not have not allowed businesses to do that type of planning with their staff,” she said of the UCP’s sudden measures.

The threshold for the number of cases linked to a restaurant to be considered an outbreak increased from five to 10 in January, but the province doesn’t publish full statistics associated with those transmissions. Ingraham said that information should be made public so employers know their risks and employees can be protected.

“Not disclosing data that’s specific to restaurants really does the industry a disservice, especially the people who work in the industry,” she said.

Had the province heeded doctors’ call for an eight-week lockdown in February, Alberta would not be facing the Covid crisis it is in today, Ingraham said. “We could have had this happen in slower months for restaurants.”

Annie Dormuth, provincial affairs director with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said it’s been “disheartening” for the restaurant industry to cope with the roller coaster of restrictions and reopenings.

Dormuth told AB Today she hopes Alberta’s reopening strategy would be similar to that of Saskatchewan, which relies on vaccine uptake levels — something Kenney said he would explore replicating.

“[Kenney] did provide a little bit of optimism in the sense that a reopening plan would be coming,” Dormuth said. “We look forward to that.”

The CFIB wants the UCP to pursue a business grant system like B.C.’s, which offers businesses up to $20,000 without the requirement that they have lost 30 per cent of their revenue.

UCP ‘assessing the situation,’ suggests more support could be in the wings
Justin Brattinga, press secretary to Jobs Minister Doug Schweitzer, told AB Today with the latest expansion of the Small and Medium Enterprise Relaunch Grant (SMERG), the province will have doled out nearly $1 billion, the highest amount of business support per capita in the country.

“We haven’t made any decisions yet, however we’re assessing the situation and may provide further supports in the near future,” Brattinga said in a statement.

The third tranche of SMERG announced in February offered businesses another $10,000 — bringing the program’s total to $30,000 per company.

In the meantime, the CFIB hopes people will keep local businesses in mind by buying bread from a nearby bakery or picking up a coffee from a local shop.

Hard-hit businesses may still be mired in debt despite government support, Dormuth said.

In one CFIB analysis, the average Alberta dine-in restaurant accumulated $330,000 in Covid-related debt, double the small business average of $186,000.

A January survey found one-in-five independent businesses were unlikely to survive the pandemic. In the hospitality sector, that figure jumped to 57 per cent, while 44 per cent business owners in the recreation industries were actively considering closing their doors.

Business Council of Alberta spokesperson Scott Crockatt said companies are understanding about restrictions, and that owners believe effectively managing the pandemic is an economic development strategy.

“Businesses think that vaccinating Albertans as quickly as possible remains our best economic development tactic, and on that front, businesses have been pleased to see that Alberta has been forward-leaning on the vaccination rollout,” Crockatt told AB Today.

While SMERG was helpful, he said many businesses quickly burned through the cash installing upgrades like plexiglass barriers.

Crockatt said federal programs such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy have been a lifeline, and noted Alberta has been an “outsized” user of Ottawa aid.

NDP pushes for more help for restaurants
The NDP have been calling for various boosts to better support businesses.

Last week, NDP Jobs critic Deron Bilous called on the government to pay for up to 75 per cent of costs, up to a maximum of $10,000, for businesses that renovated to comply with public-health measures.

He also urged the government to reimburse restaurants that upgraded their patios, which they’d expected to remain open, and to increase the latest round of SMERG to $25,000 — up from the $10,000 extension.

The New Democrats have also called for a 15 per cent cap on restaurant delivery fees since more restaurants are reliant on takeout.