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Lockdown another burden, with vaccine the only cure

Already in the works ahead of the latest provincial pandemic lockdown, National Takeout Day is even more significant to restaurateurs now that takeout is their only option for keeping their businesses afloat.

April 15 will mark one year since the COVID-19 crisis forced restaurants to focus on takeout food, forced at times to close completely or offer scaled-back seating capacity. That spawned a national food focus that saw Wednesdays highlighted as #TakeoutDay in support of local restaurants.

With its latest lockdown, Ontario prohibits even outdoor seating, another blow to the industry. More so given the expectation that the better weather would bring the return of patio season.

The restaurant and food-services industry have been among those hit hardest by the pandemic and resultant mitigation efforts.

Restaurants Canada, the not-for-profit food-services association, says the sector has seen some 10 per cent of restaurants– 10,000 of the 98,000 in operation prior to the pandemic – close their doors permanently. Some 800,000 people lost their jobs in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus crisis in March 2020. Today, there are still some 319,000 fewer jobs in the sector than there were in February 2020, with the organization noting no other sector has experienced that much of a gap.

Moreover, the job losses in the industry have had the biggest impact on women, visible minorities and young workers. Women make up 58 per cent of the restaurant workforce but account for six out of every 10 lost jobs. Some 31 per cent of restaurant owners, operators and staff belong to a visible minority, 50 per cent of Canadian restaurants are run by new Canadians, both groups who may have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Restaurant Canada notes the sector is the number-one source of first jobs for young Canadians, providing them with important work experience. That group, however, accounted for one out of every two jobs lost.

It’s not difficult to see why. According to the organization’s latest survey, eight out of 10 restaurants are either losing money or barely scraping by, and could take a year to return to profitability, and 67 per cent of survey respondents said they are continuing to operate at a loss.

That situation won’t be helped by the latest lockdown, which comes just as there was some revival happening following the stay-at-home orders that arrived with the Christmas holidays. Unlike the previous economic shutdown, most retailers have the option of remaining open just now, albeit at 25 per cent capacity (50 per cent for essential providers such as grocers and pharmacists). That’s not an option for restaurants, which can be open for takeout or not at all.

The economic hardship will stress an already fragile sector, one that accounted for about four per cent of the country’s pre-pandemic GDP.

As customers, we can help support our local spots by ordering takeout, but the only real solution is getting past the pandemic.

The current lockdown is an indication that, collectively, we’ve not been doing a good job of adhering to public health measures in order to slow the spread of the virus. Given the increasing pandemic fatigue, the best – and likely only – solution is mass vaccination.

To date, supplies of vaccine have been too small to get the job done, with slow, confused rollouts adding to the poor record in many municipalities, the region included.

The first step is to make more vaccine available for distribution – that’s the role of the federal and provincial governments. Once supplies are secured, local health officials must do a much better job of getting shots in arms. Beyond the most vulnerable who’ve been the focus of efforts to date, the key is to get beyond the frontlines of the health and long-term care sectors to others groups such as teachers, an effort that must reach down to the likes of service workers in restaurants before we can return to anything like normalcy.

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