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Alberta restaurant owners frustrated as COVID-19 closures cut into prime patio season

The off-and-on closures have taken a toll, especially on employees with families who rely on a steady paycheque, Echino said Wednesday. 
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Annabelle’s Kitchen owner Leslie Echino poses for a photo at her restaurant in Calgary on June 11, 2020.

CALGARY — Leslie Echino had planned on serving more than two dozen patrons at a time on an expanded patio at her Annabelle's Kitchen restaurant in Calgary's Marda Loop neighbourhood. 

She hauled extra furniture from the patio at her shuttered downtown location and invested thousands in a cover to keep the outdoor space open for longer. 

But, instead, Echino is looking to lay off staff for the fourth time during the COVID-19 pandemic after the province on Tuesday ordered an end to outdoor dining. 

It was one of several measures Premier Jason Kenney announced in an attempt to stop a sharp spike in infections. Indoor dining had been permitted for a brief while earlier this year, but was shut down again in April. 

The off-and-on closures have taken a toll, especially on employees with families who rely on a steady paycheque, Echino said Wednesday. 

"It's getting expensive. It's expensive on cost. It's expensive on mental well-being and health," she said. 

"How long can my staff go through this?"

Echino said she doesn't want the restaurant to be open with COVID-19 spread so rampant. Alberta has by far the highest rate of active infections in Canada at 534 per 100,000 --- nearly 2 1/2 times the national average. 

"We all have to buckle down. We all have to take a hit for the greater good," she said. "But I think what is important is the support to the people who need it: my staff.

"When you're forced to close and you cannot operate, you need that support." 

The Alberta Hospitality Association, for which Echino is a board member, is urging the government to help with utility bills, wage top-ups, patio costs and property taxes. It also wants clearer communication about what a path to recovery looks like. 

"As an organization, we have maintained a commitment to work with government using open dialogue and communication to ensure the needs of the hospitality industry are met," the association said in a release. 

"The latest lockdown shows a complete disregard to those efforts."

Kenney said Wednesday that his United Conservative government is rolling out the third instalment of a program that provides grants of up to $10,000 for small- and medium-sized businesses that have experienced at least a 30 per cent drop in revenues. That tranche of funds would be worth a total of $350 million. 

He said his government has also been providing relief on Workers' Compensation Board premiums and, with Ottawa, commercial rent assistance. 

"We'll look at whether we need to do anything additional," Kenney said. "My hope is that if people really get the message here and act responsibly, that ... those businesses can hopefully get back to a decent summer."

Ben Leon, an owner at The Dandy Brewing Co. in Calgary, said tougher measures are necessary, but they should have been brought in months ago.

The brewery invested $10,000 to spruce up its patio in anticipation of the summer season. It's not as simple a job as setting up some tables outside, Leon said. 

"There is a good amount of infrastructure that needs to be put in and built to make it safe and make it comfortable," he said. 

"I'd rather have lost four weeks in February-March to get everything back and be able to have a good, solid, even patio season all summer."  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2021.  

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press