With the Omicron variant making its way through the country, bars and restaurants are navigating capacity restrictions to try and contain the variant and many are shutting down due to COVID outbreaks. As of Dec. 22, there are 14,465 cases in Canada.
Currently, food and drink establishments in Ontario have capacity limits of 50 per cent, and are enforcing government-imposed curfews, with last call being pushed back to 10 p.m.
To assist those who are having their pay slashed as a result of their workplace shuttering or having fewer staff to help slow the spread of the variant, the Canadian government has introduced a new Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit, which offers eligible workers $300 a week. Although the benefit is intended only for workers who are losing hours of work as a direct result of a government-imposed public health lockdown, the eligibility has been extended to those dealing with capacity limits, such as restaurant staff. However, service industry workers need to have lost 50 per cent or more of their income as a result of capacity limits in order to qualify.
As the service industry continues to navigate the pandemic, we spoke with a couple Canadian women with years of experience in the restaurant industry to get their views on how outbreaks and capacity restrictions are affecting their jobs, and some things you might want to be mindful of the next time you sit down for a bite at your fave spot.
Respect the COVID restrictions
Madison Lee has worked in the food and drink industry since she was a teenager doing hosting, serving, catering and more. This past summer, she worked at a winery in the Niagara region, where she served outside on a patio. She noticed that customers were trying to fit in more people than capacity limits would allow, and did not care about wearing their masks, which was challenging. “It was tricky to control the occupancy because there were so many entry points,” she said of the patio. “So although we would have people, you know, counting at the front entrance and trying our best to kind of sanction off all the other entryways and funnel everyone, people would find creative ways to find their way around the rules. They really tried to bend the rules.”
She added, “I remember looking up one day and thinking to myself, ‘there’s at least 400 people in front of me, all not wearing masks, not distancing.'”
Don’t expect special treatment
While working at the winery, Lee said that tourists would come from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) to the winery and expect special treatment because they had to travel to get there, expecting staff to bend the rules to allow for more people at tables and laxer distancing measures. “If your favourite restaurant all of a sudden has a lot more rules and restrictions than before, don’t get frustrated,” she says. “Just understand that they’ve been operating in a year that maybe they’ve only received 30 per cent profits. Just bear with them.”
Be mindful about masking
Lee experienced customers who were irritated about her trying to speak clearly with her mask on. “I would have people that would get upset with me, [and] frustrated with me because they maybe couldn’t hear my voice and hear me clearly with a mask on,” she said. “And then when I would speak up, they would get offended, because they were like, ‘Don’t yell at me.'”
Remember that staff are burned out, too
The staff who are on their feet, using their energy to be hospitable and trying to provide you with the best possible service and experience, are also feeling exhausted. “Everyone was so emotionally burnt out,” Lee says. “I could see that although it was slow [with our] reduced hours, everyone was really stressed out.” She adds that the stress comes from the uncertainty of not knowing whether they’d have a job if their restaurant had to close.
If I do risk my health and my safety and other people are dying, is it going to be worth my time?
Jessica Boyd, a restaurant manager in Toronto, echoes Lee. “I’ve always enjoyed this industry. But I would say that the downside of it is that not everybody that’s been coming into the restaurant has been the most respectful of the fact that we’re not fully protected, even though we’re expected to give them a good time.”
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Be aware that capacity limits mean less income for staff
While patrons might be frustrated about capacity limits, it’s easy to forget that cooks and other restaurant support staff are making less than usual while servers and bartenders are continuing to make below minimum wage — and with fewer customers to serve, they’re making even less money and potential tips. “If you’re not really busy, we’re not really making any money,” Boyd says. “And with restaurants going to half capacity, that means you have to have either as many staff on just to keep up with the cleaning, or less staff on so that they can make some cash while they’re there.”
Know that labour shortages are surging in the industry
Lee says there were many staff who have chosen to self-isolate at home, rather than facing the risk of working and potentially catching COVID. “I think COVID has kind of made people nervous about whether the money is actually going to be there. So now the question is, OK, if I do risk my health and my safety and other people are dying, is it going to be worth my time?”
Boyd has also noticed the shortage. “[With] mature staff, that’s like been an issue for a long time, a lot of them just said ‘enough is enough’ and they didn’t come back after the second reopening of things.”
The menu might be different due to supply chain disruptions
Lee currently works at a Japanese restaurant in Toronto, and due to shortages and supply chain disruptions from the pandemic, certain foods aren’t available. “We have limited resources now,” she explains. “Importing and exporting certain products is difficult, right? So, for example, [at] my restaurant, it’s sushi meat and oysters. Who wants to go to a Japanese restaurant, where we don’t have sushi. Right?” She adds that it’s about understanding that staff are trying their best.
Know that there is a reason for curfew
Boyd points out that when customers are drinking, they tend to be more forgetful about wearing their masks and physical distancing. By implementing a curfew that prohibits restaurants and bars from serving alcohol until 2 a.m., it is easier for staff to ensure people are following the health and safety regulations.
Respect the boundaries of staff
Boyd stresses that although it might be tempting to sidle up to your server closely or hug your favourite bartender, it’s important to be mindful of their personal space. “Everyone’s boundaries are different, you sometimes have regulars that you are very comfortable with,” she says. “But in this climate, I feel like we all have to socially distance from each other, as hard as it can be.”
Know that staff are stressed about fake vaccination papers and faulty QR codes
“The way the government rolled out the QR code, it wasn’t perfect,” Boyd says. “My husband had one that was government-issued, but when I downloaded the scanner, it wouldn’t accept his QR code. He was like, ‘This is ridiculous, because how are you guys supposed to like determine which is real and which is fake?'”
“The best we could do is look at people’s second vaccine [receipt] in whatever form they had it, and then look at their ID to make sure that they were the real person,” Boyd says. “But again, from the beginning of this, I felt that maybe they could have created jobs by having somebody come and do that at restaurants, because how do you expect a 17-year-old hostess to police people at the front door?”
Show appreciation, if you can
At the end of the day, it doesn’t hurt to be kind and patient while in a restaurant or bar. “I think it’s just a matter of trying your very best to simply have a good time. Just go and be happy. Order food, order drinks, have a good time, tip your waitress or waiter,” Lee says. “Take that experience for everything that it is, if it takes a little bit longer than usual.”
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