Christine Grant is feeling the nervous pangs she would normally get the night before opening a new restaurant. But the front-of-house manager isn't christening a sparkling new eatery; she's readying Pizzeria Antico to reopen for in-person dining weeks after restaurants across B.C. were forced to drastically limit their operations due to COVID-19.
"I couldn't sleep. I was worried about what people were thinking and how it was all going to go," Grant said just hours after the Main Street pizzeria had welcomed sit-down diners for the first time in more than two months.
"Honestly, a lot of people are just quite happy, seemingly, to get a beer in a glass that isn't from their own cupboard."
As of Tuesday, May 19, restaurants and patios across B.C. were permitted to reopen under strict guidelines, including operating at a maximum of 50-per-cent capacity; allowing groups of up to six people, with each group seated at least two metres apart; and drafting and posting a COVID-19 safety plan. Booths will also have to have barriers installed between them, and a restaurant's occupancy will be determined by the number of tables the operator can fit into its space while adhering to physical-distancing protocols.
Grant said diners have mostly been respectful of the new guidelines on the first day of B.C.'s new normal—with a few exceptions.
"We've had to actually have a couple conversations with people today, unfortunately," she said. "We're essentially retraining our customers as to what this new normal is going to look like and what the procedures are to come into the restaurant."
While a handful of local restaurants have resumed in-person dining, many operators are taking a wait-and-see approach before letting guests back through their doors.
"I think it will take a week for people to process it and decide what they're going to do," said Eric Griffith, president of the Restaurant Association of Whistler (RAW), which held a virtual meeting with members last week only days before WorkSafe BC issued reopening procedures for the sector.
"I think anyone with a larger square footage and the right type of product mix is going to give it a shot, but they're still maintaining the 50-per-cent occupancy. That is a challenge, for sure," Griffith said. "You really have to think about your layout and how you're going to do it. It's going to take some decisions and to get the measuring tape out."
Earls Kitchen + Bar was another local eatery that resumed in-person dining Tuesday, with its normal capacity of around 300, including the patio, cut in half. Counting 68 restaurants across North America, Earls had already reopened locations in Texas, Manitoba and Alberta in recent weeks, and, locally, looks to be something of a litmus test for other operators gauging whether to follow suit, said Griffith, who doubles as the owner of Alta Bistro.
"They truly believe they can take that leadership role. Kevin Wallace, the general manager, said 'We are sharing what we're learning,' which is so great for us as a small, independent restaurant," said Griffith. "This week will be interesting."
And while Grant said Pizzeria Antico, which has pushed its delivery and takeaway offerings through a series of popular specials, has maintained similar sales volumes during the pandemic to the same shoulder-season period last year, the reality is an industry already relying on razor-thin margins can't sustain for long under the current restrictions.
"The trouble with all of this is going to be how long can the restaurant industry live with these guidelines?" said Earls Chief Operating Officer Craig Blize. "As we all know, 50-per-cent capacity is not going to be a healthy model long term, and so we need to start getting to 75-per-cent and 100-per-cent capacity, but be patient and understand that the safety of our employees and guests is of the utmost importance."
Staffing is another question mark for the sector. For now, Griffith said restaurateurs are relying on core staff, but as travel begins to ramp up and demand along with it, "then we'll see where we end up with employing more people outside of the core teams that will be required to do the volume, if we see that volume."
Although there is plenty of uncertainty ahead, Griffith believes there is reason to be optimistic as restaurants begin to welcome diners once more.
"I'm sure everyone is going to do a great job of it because our community here in Whistler is all about welcoming back the regional market, the Vancouver market," he said. "We know we're a safe place to be, so that's the line we're taking as a group. We want Whistler to be seen as that place where some comfort can be taken in the professional level of our group, but also how we operate as a community."