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'Buy Plexiglas stock': Here's how B.C. restaurants might look when they finally reopen
VANCOUVER -- Justin Ault feels like he and his business have turned the corner.
Over the last six weeks, he and his wife, Lea, who have owned and operated Yaletown’s Hapa Izakaya on Hamilton Street since 2010, have laid off staff, applied for a federal loan, and navigated the tricky world of putting artfully-plated food into a delivery box.
“I guess the thing that keeps me somewhat sane is that everyone’s in the same boat,” Ault tells me, as we stand physically distanced at a bar that’s now collecting dust where bartenders used to pour drinks like “sake sangria.”
Still, Ault admits, it’s hard to always be optimistic when the amount of money he’s bringing in has fallen off a cliff.
“It’s challenging,” Ault says, while choking back a tear. “But we’re getting through it.”
And getting through it means eventually having a plan to welcome his loyal customers back, to the long bar that usually seats at least 12, and the scattered tables and booths that typically hold another 70.
He also has a patio, but the seating is fairly tight, and flanks the main entrance.
Ault has lots of questions.
“It’s head scratching,” he says. “Do we have one (barstool) literally every six feet?” he asks, as an example.
Questions like that are why the B.C. Restaurant and Food Service Association (BCRFA), a business organization that has members across the industry, has taken the lead.
President & CEO Ian Tostenson says he’s been working with 53 restaurant owners and operators across the province to draft a reopening proposal, with a set of guidelines and recommendations for all restaurants to follow.
“The benchmark is a plan that could be used anywhere in Canada… that addresses the whole issue of public confidence and certainly public safety,” Tostenson says.
And the BCRFA plans to submit the plan to B.C.’s health ministry, including provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who has called for the industry to come up with its own standards and solutions, by Wednesday.
Among the changes the taskforce is recommending for workers: temperature checks at the start of each shift, masks and gloves for those who clear dishes or tables, and more hand sanitation stations.
Among the changes for customers: physical-distancing between stools and tables, a cap on party size, and the understanding that anyone who appears to be ill or displays symptoms will be asked to leave.
“You’re not going to see lineups at a restaurant,” Tostenson says. "You’ll probably be texted and asked to come in when your table is ready.”
Tostenson envisions that all restaurants that want to re-open will apply through an on-line portal, which will provide them with a one-stop-shop for information and some supplies, what he calls a “restaurant in a box.”
Eventually, once businesses make the recommended changes, they’ll receive a sticker or decal for their front window that indicates they’re COVID-19 “certified,” so to speak.
All other restaurants that don’t go through the protocols, Tostenson says, should remain closed.
He also acknowledges Phase 1, during which the taskforce is recommending restaurants reduce their capacity to 50 per cent, won’t work for everyone, and that some businesses with challenging financial circumstances or physical footprints may not make it through.
Eventually, after a matter of weeks, Tostenson says, the plan would be for a Phase 2, to ramp up to 75 per cent capacity.
“People can mingle a bit more,” he predicts. “Maybe patios can have a bit more density.”
It remains unclear when Dr. Henry might give restaurants the green light. Much of that depends on how the COVID-19 case numbers evolve across British Columbia, along with community outbreaks.
Tostenson estimates it could be June, or even July.
“We want to open when it’s ready,” he says.
Back in Yaletown, Ault says he’s going to be more than ready to get his longtime customers back eating tataki and tempura on the patio, and drinking a yuzu smash at the bar after the pandemic that “turned his word upside down.”
His first course of action?
“Buy Plexiglass stock,” he quips.
Tostenson says the BCRFA proposal calls for Plexiglas between back-to-back booths to add physical separation, but not between tables or stools.