Hard-hit Edmonton restaurants face new Omicron obstacles

Since Omicron began spreading, Tony Britton no longer knows how many of his restaurant employees will be available to clock in for work each day.

Labour shortages, driven by the highly contagious variant, have been exacerbated by a lack of testing in Alberta, Britton says.

“People are missing five days of work that might just have regular cold symptoms,” said Britton, director of operations for Edmonton restaurants DOSC, Dorinku and Japonais.

“They might get their hands on a rapid test. They might not.”

The fifth wave of the pandemic in Alberta has been a frustrating challenge for Edmonton’s beleaguered restaurant industry, as an increasing number of workers are sidelined by COVID-19.

The province is now rationing PCR testing and supplies of at-home rapid test kits have been running critically low for weeks, leaving thousands of cases undocumented. 

‘A grey area’

With provincial labs overwhelmed, employers are being asked to rely on the honour system when workers fall ill. 

“It’s such a grey area,” Britton said. “There is no proof. 

“We have to trust our team and hope that they are going to be honest. But when times get tough and money is tough, you never know.” 

Tony Britton and bartender Aman Khurana pose for a photograph at DOSC steakhouse. Britton says a lack of testing has left the industry struggling with labour shortages. (Min Dhariwal/CBC)

Restaurants are struggling to manage staffing shortages and temper the risk of COVID spreading through back kitchens and dining rooms, Britton said.

More financial support and access to testing is needed, he said. 

“We have hundreds of contacts every single day,” he said.  “There are no work-from-home options.” 

As of Thursday, Alberta had 63,000 known active cases of COVID-19 — the highest total yet — but the true number of cases is believed to be 10 times higher.

The spike in cases has Shelly Yasin bracing for more cases among her staff. She has operated a handful of Edmonton restaurants over the years, including Sahara Palace in the city’s north.

She has been forced to temporarily close Sahara several times during the pandemic, due to illness. 

“I need everyone to clock in because that’s what’s paying my bills,” she said. “But I don’t want anybody with symptoms to come in. I don’t want this to be spread.” 

Yasin said she feels torn between keeping her business alive and wanting to keep her employees safe. 

“I don’t want to be pressuring staff to come in and then feel responsible that they’ve taken it back to their family,” she said. 

“It goes back to you feeling this guilt that I don’t have the appropriate PPE. I don’t have tests to see if this is just a seasonal cold or COVID and so you’re torn, so torn.” 

For small businesses in the service and hospitality industry, the fifth wave may prove to be the most painful yet, said Puneeta McBryan, executive director of the Edmonton Downtown Business Association.

Staffing and testing challenges have emerged while dining rooms are emptying out due to illness or patrons’ fear of infection.

Many government grants have dried up and some operators are seeing their rents go up, McBryan said.

She fears many businesses in Edmonton will not survive.

Businesses are being very responsible and very cautious, closing their doors when they need to, but they’re paying the price for it.– Puneeta McBryan

“All of the resilience and grit that has been demonstrated again and again through the last two years, it’s running on low supply at this point,” McBryan said. 

“Businesses are being very responsible and very cautious, closing their doors when they need to, but they’re paying the price for it.”

‘Not worth it’ 

Garner Beggs co-owns Duchess Bake Shop with his wife Kelsey Johnson. The couple decided to close down their second business, Café Linnea, a few months into the pandemic.

“About six months in, I just didn’t see an end to this,” Beggs said. “The prospect of trying to run the restaurant through this, it just didn’t make sense.

“Financially, we might have been able to do it. But the toll that it would have taken was just not worth it.”

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