Coronavirus: Quebec restaurants struggle, lay off workers amid COVID-19 pandemic

In a city with a reputation for great food, it’s not uncommon to see lineups to access popular Montreal restaurants.

But many of those restaurants are now dark, empty establishments, sitting in a ghost town trying to curb a global pandemic.

For the legendary Snowdon Deli, it’s meant they’ve had to cut their purchases and their labour force in half, forcing the temporary layoff of 16 employees including their wait staff, cashiers, grill workers and meat cutters.

Co-owner Hart Fishman, along with his family and partners, have taken on those duties in order to keep the business afloat and comply with health authority mandates to only remain open at 50-per cent capacity.

The deli has taken it a step further and is now only open for takeout and delivery.

“These days are very conflicting. It’s tough for us owners. I feel for my staff who’ve been with us for 30, 40 years,” an emotional Fishman told Global News.

“They’ve known me since I was a baby. We’re like a family and now I have to send them home.”

Karen Armstrong has worked at the deli for nearly three decades as a waitress and is one of the affected staff.

The pandemic and its effects on the business have left her ridden with questions.

“It’s a scary feeling,” she told Global News. “Are we going to be able to get back to normal? How long is it going to be?

“It’s scary because I’m going to be 61 years old. Do I want to look for a job somewhere else? I’m not ready to retire. Where is this going to end?”

Jonathan Dresner is the name behind popular restaurants and cafes such as Notre-Bœuf-de-Grâce, a burger and brunch spot, vegan and gluten-free restaurants Kupfert and Kim and Hello 123, as well as Pigeon Cafe.

His rapidly-expanding businesses saw 10 restaurant openings in the past few months, but it’s all ground to a halt amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Several of the Notre-Bœuf-de-Grâce restaurants in Montreal are closed and the projected opening of other establishments is now up in the air.

He’s also had to lay off about 100 employees. Dresner hopes it’s only temporary but the uncertainty surrounding how long the crisis will last is taking a toll.

“It’s hitting hard everywhere, there are big rents to pay and big bank loans,” Dresner said.

“There was a lot of expansion and we were waiting for the summer to make our money back and now, throughout the day, my mind changes about what I’m supposed to do.”

Government measures to help employees, business owners

The provincial and federal governments have introduced financial relief measures for businesses who are affected by the outbreak.

Quebec is providing financial assistance to workers who may be temporarily laid-off or have to be in self-isolation without the ability to make money.

The federal government will spend $27 billion in direct support for Canadian workers and businesses.

While help is welcome, the measures might not be able to save everyone.

“The difficulty is going to be how fast are we going to get back to normal,” said economist Moshe Lander.

“Even when we get the all-clear on the measures, is everyone going to rush to the bar to celebrate? Or will people have some apprehension? That’s when the residual damage can come into play.”

Lander says there is a possibility that while the vast majority of business will recover, some will be left behind.

His advice to business owners navigating the effects of the pandemic? Get creative.

“The best you can do is to take the time and think about the re-entry strategy when that becomes available. What is business going to look like when we’re free of all of this?” Lander explained.

“Thinking of business as usual might be a strategy that might backfire.”

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