Montreal restaurateurs “in shock” after the provincial authorities ordered a 28-day closure

MONTREAL – Montreal restaurateurs say they don’t understand why the provincial government is ordering the closure of their stores despite there have been no COVID-19 outbreaks related to the city’s famous restaurant industry.

On Monday, authorities put Montreal and Quebec City on the highest COVID-19 alert, banned indoor private gatherings and closed bars, cinemas and restaurant dining rooms for 28 days.

Restaurant owners say they have been treated unfairly.

“We did everything according to the rules, everything right,” said Martin Juneau, owner of Pastaga, a well-known restaurant in Montreal’s Little Italy.

Like many restaurateurs, Juneau installed partitions between the tables and trained staff to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

Some restaurant owners have spent thousands of dollars on barriers and personal protective equipment, Martin Vezina, spokesman for the Quebec Gastronomy Association, said Tuesday.

He said members of his organization were “in shock” after hearing from provincial officials for days that private gatherings – not restaurants – were the leading cause of rising COVID-19 cases in Quebec.

No outbreaks or reports of COVID-19 transmission from employees to customers in Montreal restaurants have been reported, said city public health director Dr. Mylene Drouin, told reporters on Tuesday.

Michael Lafaille opened a second location for his restaurant, Kwizinn, three weeks ago, an expansion that was delayed for months by the pandemic.

“We had to work overnight, long hours,” he said. “It feels like it’s a waste of time.”

Despite working hard and sticking to the rules, he feels like restaurants are not treated as real businesses by the government.

Since his restaurant’s second location is new, it doesn’t qualify for existing rental assistance programs based on previous years’ income, he said. And while take-away and delivery help, online delivery services charge heavy fees that can make it difficult to make a profit, he added.

Genevieve Touchette, general manager of Le Central, said some of the 22 restaurants in their food hall in downtown Montreal are not set up for takeout and delivery. Her business depends on downtown pedestrian traffic and with the order to close concert halls, she said the already dire situation would get worse.

Touchette said she doesn’t understand how closing down a controlled environment – especially a large one like the 20,000-square-foot Le Central – is going to help break the second wave.

Juneau said he expects Pastaga to survive the shutdown, but some of his other businesses – a small grocery store, wine bar, and ice cream parlor – may not.

In a July poll of 580 restaurateurs’ association members, 61 percent said they would be out of business within six months if their prospects didn’t improve, Vezina said. “Now the situation has changed for the worse.”

Lots of restaurants have bought food that they probably can’t use, Vezina explained. His organization calls on the government to compensate restaurants for these losses and to help with cash flow and rent.

There are also fears for restaurant workers.

Shawn Barr, who works in the kitchen at O’Thym, an upscale restaurant in Montreal’s gay village, said he expected his working hours to be greatly reduced.

While he’s not worried in the short term, he said he’s afraid of what might happen later. “Even if I believe we will survive, our fate is in the hands of our customers.”

– This report by The Canadian Press was first published on September 29, 2020.

– This story was produced with financial support from Facebook and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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