Maxwell van Stee is manager of Pitchfork Eatery. He has also become, during the pandemic, its de facto bouncer.
Van Stee says he’s removed customers who fail to stay in their seats, as well as others who aren’t wearing masks when they speak to his staff.
The difficulties of running a restaurant during the pandemic have also prompted van Stee to give his full-time staff members an extended health benefit that includes free counselling sessions.
“COVID-19 has made being a restaurant worker a much harder job,” he says, “and sometimes staff need extended time off because of the stress. Most of my servers went from five to four or fewer days a week due to stress.”
Van Stee’s own hours, meanwhile, have gone up because he doesn’t want to leave his staff alone to deal with customers who don’t take the pandemic health rules seriously. He usually hosts the door to intercept such people before they encounter his staff.
He says if potential customers see other customers breaking the rules, it hurts Pitchfork’s reputation.
“I’ve had tables of all healthy 20-to-30-somethings, all claiming medical exemptions. And then we have people coming in for reservations, who turn and walk away when they see people just standing around without their mask.”
Van Stee is among the restaurant owners and employees in Nelson, having grown accustomed to the stresses of complying with COVID-19 health regulations, who have had to pivot once again with the new restrictions on indoor dining announced March 29 by the province.
The new provincial rules banning indoor dining took effect at midnight on March 29 and extend to April 19.
But management and staff are still faced each day with worry about their own health, non-compliant customer behaviour, and the viability of the business should the restrictions continue.
Ashley Postnikoff, owner of Railtown Coffee, has similar problems but she can’t take over for staff because she has none.
Even though a new ban on indoor dining is hurting her business, Postnikoff is also relieved because she was tired of policing the rules at her indoor tables.
“I feel for my customers, for my regulars who like to sit in here. But having watched how people stretched the rules … it (the restriction) was necessary. I got battled with daily, about the rules, the seating, moving tables, chairs, all that stuff.”
She’s taking the new health order as a kind of reset, “a necessary change to try and get this under control.”
Nelson City Council provided some relief for businesses at its March 30 meeting by extending its 2020 waiver of patio fees for the 2021 season. The city’s chief financial officer Colin McClure told the Star the city will forego about $36,000 in revenue as a result.
For many restaurant owners in Nelson the less-than-24-hours notice of the new restrictions was a shock.
“To have the rules change that instantly, with no warning really, doesn’t help us very much,” says Brent Malysh, co-owner of Backroads Brewery.
He is not arguing with the restriction, just the speed of it.
“We were just planning on how we were going to have our whole room, indoor and outdoor, put together for the summer. We’ve spent a lot of money to try to get this right.”
Tanya Finley, owner of Finley’s Bar and Grill, agrees and says one of the results of the short notice is wasted food.
“Easter weekend is happening,” she said on April 2, “and we’ve been making and prepping food to feed a town of 10,000, and what do you do with that food now that they can’t dine in?”
Finley goes further, criticizing the order itself and wondering why it was applied evenly across the province.
“I think our area has been doing fantastic, and I don’t think that we should be penalized for what’s happening down there (in the Lower Mainland),” she said.
Chad Hansen, owner of Broken Hill, says he’s getting used to sudden pandemic changes.
“There’s so many curveballs been thrown through this entire thing, so rather than just get down or be angry, it’s just adjust, adjust, adjust. Do what we can do safely within the plan.”
He says his staff feels the extra burden of the health rules, both before and after the recent restrictions.
“They’re the servers, but now they’re also healthcare enforcement officials as well, which is unfair for them when they’re already doing a hard job in the first place.”
Underlying all these issues, and the cause of much of the stress, is the question of how long a business can survive financially with no indoor dining.
Korina Langevin, owner of Red Light Ramen, is blunt about how her business would not have survived without the wage and rent subsidy from senior governments.
“Without that subsidy, we would have gone belly-up 100 per cent. We’ve had a massive drop in sales, a massive drop.”
She and Finley both say they will have to lay off staff if the restriction on indoor dining continues.
Langevin is worried about the mental health of her workers, whom she says are struggling. She says some of them are worried about the potential failure of the business.
“Especially for the serving staff, they make a low wage, which is kind of how it’s done with servers. And now, they’re making barely any tips. So they just had a huge reduction in what they’re making.”
It is at least some comfort for patio owners, which include all the restauranteurs in this article, that the indoor dining shutdown has come just in time for spring weather suitable for a patio meal.
Van Stee says he recently served grateful customers on his patio who said, “I haven’t dined out since August. I haven’t felt safe enough.”