Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., on April 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., on April 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Labour shortages, closed borders major obstacles to B.C. restaurant, tourism restarts

Industry expert says it won’t start to recover until international travellers can visit

Progressive easing of pandemic health restrictions in British Columbia are welcome steps to bring back normal life, but tourism and restaurant sector representatives say operators face daunting COVID-19 related barriers of worker shortages and border closures.

The shortage of labour in B.C. and the closed border between Canada and the United States will hinder the restart effort despite fewer health restrictions, restaurant and tourism industry spokesmen said Tuesday.

Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C., said the industry lost billions of dollars in revenues over the past 16 months and it won’t start to recover until international travellers can visit.

The industry is calling on the federal government to move quickly to reopen the border to bring U.S. and international tourists to B.C., he said.

“It cannot come soon enough,” said Judas.

Before the pandemic, tourism in B.C. generated about $21.5 billion in revenue, but data for 2020 indicates the number dropped to less than $7 billion, he said.

“If we could start with the United States and progress from there, that’s really where the industry needs to be in fairly short order,” said Judas. “We can’t afford another summer with only domestic visitation because it doesn’t pay the bill.”

Premier John Horgan said he expects the border opening issue to be raised Thursday during the weekly call between the premiers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

B.C. lifted recreational travel restrictions from within the province Tuesday as part of its four-step reopening plan that aims for a return to normal pre-pandemic life without masks and limits on gatherings after Labour Day.

Ian Tostenson, B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association president, said the industry is gearing up for a full reopening without restrictions, but is facing a reduced workforce.

Restaurants, pubs and bars employed an estimated 190,000 people prior to the pandemic, but the industry is bracing for a loss of about 40,000 people over the past 16 months, he said.

“It’s all about labour,” said Tostenson. “It’s a real problem. It’s going to be a real struggle.”

He said many people left the industry to find more secure work as restaurants cut staff or closed during the pandemic. Others decided not to work in an industry where they were not comfortable interacting directly with the public during a pandemic, Tostenson said.

He said many restaurants are being forced to examine their opening hours and are paring down their menus due to fewer workers as the province allows for more freedoms.

Tostenson said he expected a hot job market for potential restaurant employees this summer. He suggested potential employees apply in person.

“These (employers) are not sitting at the back looking at banks of computers,” Tostenson said. “Go there, look good, put a smile on your face and say you want a job. Chances are you’ll be hired.”

The B.C. government announced Tuesday those restaurants and bars that were temporarily allowed to serve liquor on outdoor patios areas could apply to keep them permanently.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth says in a news release temporary patios helped the businesses during the pandemic and the government plans to make them part of a long-term recovery plan.

Brian Richmond, artistic director at Victoria’s Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre, said he’s delighted at the prospect of a return to live theatre even if it’s only 50 people in the theatre to start.

“The performing arts will always be a challenge,” said Richmond, whose theatre company plans to stage Newfoundland playwright David French’s play “Salt Water Moon” as its first production next month.

“The performing arts have been particularly hard hit. Just as a sector, we need your support right now,” he said.

Step two of B.C.’s four-step reopening plan permits indoor gatherings of a maximum of 50 people and extends the cutoff of alcohol sales at restaurants, pubs and bars to midnight.

Step three, due July 1, includes optional mask wearing, spectators at indoor sports events and an increase in capacity at indoor gatherings.

—Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

RELATED: Tourism, hospitality sector digs in for 2nd COVID summer amid wait for border re-opening

RELATED: Province-wide travel back on in B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan

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