This story is the first in a series on how the food industry is handling the COVID-19 outbreak.
COVID-19 has sent shock waves across all of Toronto’s cultural industries.
At the tail end of last week, news of one closure after another reverberated across the city, with everything from museums and major tourist attractions to independent theatres and small events being shut down or put off until the threat of contagion subsides.
The city’s restaurant industry, however, has been slower to throw in the towel.
After public warnings from officials began mounting about sanitation practices, one business after another – from independent mom and pops to corporate chains – has taken pains to reassure customers, through social media and newsletters, that ramped-up safety procedures would be in place.
But as many other local institutions have shut their doors, the lion’s share of Toronto’s restaurants are still open for business.
A number are staying open to serve a burgeoning market for takeout and delivery; many local spots have even begun rolling out new to-go options to serve customers while shifting business away from hosting groups in the dining room.
In other cities, including New York and L.A., municipal authorities have ordered restaurants to close their doors to dine-in traffic, offering takeout and delivery only. At a press conference Monday morning, Ontario Premier Doug Ford was asked if his government would follow suit.
“I can say everything’s on the table, but we take our advice off the chief medical officer. This is changing rapidly, and we will take it day by day,” he said.
As it stands, many Toronto restaurants are loath to close their doors entirely. The food industry operates on notoriously slim margins – compounded in Toronto by a commercial rent crisis.
As concerns mount over COVID-19, restaurateurs are left to worry about the financial effect a closure would have on staff – or that their doors may never reopen once the pandemic subsides.
“As it stands, we simply cannot afford to close our business,” Roselle Desserts owners Bruce Lee and Stephanie Duong wrote last week on Instagram. Lee told NOW he is “very concerned” about the impact of COVID-19 on the shop.
“Our staff depend on us to pay their bills. My wife [Duong] and I have all of our life savings invested in our business,” Lee said. “Our small business is very exposed to shocks like this and it is an incredibly stressful time.”
In the interim, the Roselle team are being “extra diligent” regarding cleanliness, including disinfecting all surfaces every 15 minutes, and are tweaking both bakeries to remove seating and focus on an increased demand for takeout.
But it’s too soon to tell, Lee says, what will happen in the long run: “The impact will depend on how long the disruption lasts, and the ripple effects afterward.”
Glad Day Bookshop, a venerable bookstore in Toronto’s gay village, also serves as a restaurant, cafe, bar and events venue, as well as a hub for queer life within the city.
The business has long been dealing with the stress of skyrocketing rents in the Church St. corridor. Michael Erickson, who co-owns the shop, says that in this climate, a coronavirus-related closure could spell “the immediate end of Glad Day.”
“I personally think the only thing that would help a business like Glad Day and our staff is an immediate suspension of rent… Anything less than that would be catastrophic,” Erickson said.
The shop employs about 15 people from across the queer spectrum, and brings in cash for artists and performers through events, including its popular drag brunch series.
A number of emergency measures have been put in place at the shop: Capacity is being cut by about 60 per cent, while straws and coffee add-ins have been removed from public access. Tables are being spaced significantly further apart, and the buffet at their drag brunch has now become all-you-can-eat food plated by the kitchen.
But a full closure without any kind of government safety net, he says, would mean “intense financial implications” for staff members and performers.
“We’re a restaurant, and a bar, and a bookstore, and a performance space, so (we’re seeing) a lot of people suddenly facing dire consequences. And we’re one of the few venues that hasn’t cancelled things – so people are looking at us to be their last paycheque for the month,” he says.
Erickson is looking at putting a number of measures into place. In addition to making online gift certificates for the shop available, the shop has launched a fundraising initiative to keep Glad Day in business, as well as giving cash-based relief to members of the community whose livelihoods have been impacted by COVID-19. Online gift cards will soon be available, and the team is looking at streaming performances from the space, with the option to tip performers digitally.
Meanwhile, a growing number of restaurants and bars have already shuttered for the foreseeable future. A sampling: Honest Weight, Edulis, DaiLo, Farmhouse Tavern, Skyline, Lox and Schmear, Cherry St. Bar-B-Que, Dreyfus, Miss Thing’s and Farside. All of Table 17’s properties (including Gare de L’Est, Hi-Lo Bar and both Ascari locations) have shut down, as have all of Jen Agg’s restaurants.
“At this point, it feels like a moral obligation,” Agg said in an Instagram post announcing the closures. “It’s clear and obvious that social distancing is the only way to help mitigate this disaster. So even if people are choosing to ignore what is clear and obvious, we don’t want to be any part of why they’re choosing to ignore that.”
Agg later urged the government to order restaurants to close, and to offer payroll support and rental relief: “Anything else is morally and fiscally unethical,” she said.
So far, the federal government has announced some worker supports for those affected by COVID-19, including waiving the one-week EI period for sickness benefits (for those self-isolating or quarantined), as well as a $12 million expansion to the workshare program for those experiencing a downturn in business.
“We are exploring additional measures to support other affected Canadians, including income support for those that are not eligible for EI sickness benefits,” a release added. Details, however, have yet to materialize.
On top of his work at Glad Day, Erickson works part-time as a high school teacher. “During this time, a group like that will still get paid, whereas the most marginalized workers won’t,” he said.
“Obviously, we would also like to close, or reduce our space, but the burden for our closure has to be shared equally. Right now the burden of closure will fall most heavily on the people with the least resources. Until the government figures out how to spread the financial burden more evenly across the country – I think it’s a little bit tough for those in the most need to take the greatest hit.”
UPDATE (March 16, 2020): The city’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen De Villa, has officially asked Toronto restaurants and bars to close to the public after midnight on March 17. Restaurants are encouraged to keep doing takeout and delivery.
De Villa added that restaurants found to not be complying could face hefty fines under the Health Protection & Promotion Act.