SUNDRE — Concerns about the possibility of a local COVID-19 outbreak being triggered by increased tourist traffic heading into the West Country as camping season gets started, has prompted a cautious approach from local restaurant owners, who are in no rush to reopen their dining areas.
“We just want to take it nice and slow,” said Derek Ralph, owner and chef at Twisted Pantry Bistro, which recently observed its first anniversary.
“We want to make sure that the peak is over first,” said Ralph.
When asked on Wednesday, May 13 whether he would proceed with a partial reopening pending the government’s green light, Ralph said bluntly, “We are not. We’re going to take the proactive measure.”
The Victoria Day May long weekend tends to spur a big rush of people that during the best of days can be a bit of a “gong show,” but during a pandemic could inadvertently bring cases into the community, he said.
Due to the shutdown, restaurants have been forced to use up most of their fresh produce and keep a tight inventory, he added.
“All of the restaurants have to reinvest back into their restaurants to get their product back in.”
Although uncertain as to whether the surge of tourist traffic would pick up for the long weekend, Ralph expressed a preference towards a more cautious approach.
“The last thing I would like to do in Sundre is have one of my employees or myself, or somebody else, catch COVID-19 and then it gets tied back to your restaurant.”
Even taking proper precautions including wearing masks and gloves won’t necessarily stop a sudden outbreak from spreading, he said.
Complicating matters further has been what he feels is inadequate messaging from Alberta Health Services. Although the health agency was initially proactive in communicating with business owners at the start of the pandemic, Ralph said he heard about the so-called soft reopening through the media, but had not received any official government directives.
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Additionally, Ralph said his establishment is too small to justify opening at only 50 per cent capacity, which would represent only five tables.
He also expressed reservations about committing to purchase fresh produce so long as the potential for another shutdown looms overhead.
“I want to be able to pull the trigger on spending all the money on groceries at the right time,” he said.
“It’s kind of a financial thing more than a fear thing.”
Fortunately, the community has played a huge role in keeping his business afloat.
“Sundre’s been fantastic for supporting us. It’s our community that’s the best part,” said Ralph, who throughout the course of the shutdown has continued making meals and was in the process of preparing homemade cabbage rolls when contacted.
“From the time we closed down, we’ve had our same core customers order every week, and sometimes even twice a week,” he said.
“We actually sell a lot more individual meals for curbside pickup than we would even opening the restaurant.”
Depending on how the smoke settles, he anticipates possibly opening up in early June.
“It’s given us a chance to really get our bearings and kind of do a reset,” he said, also expressing gratitude for an accommodating landlord.
Piros Family Restaurant has also continued providing a take-out service during the shutdown, and George Mitsuolas, who owns and operates the establishment with wife Helen, was in no hurry to reopen prematurely.
Also concerned about the potential of a local outbreak as people come out from the cities, Mitsuolas said he was reluctant to reopen so long as the specter of uncertainty that they might only end up being forced to close again hangs overhead.
And even with attempts to enforce health and safety guidelines, which hadn’t yet been clearly outlined, customers tend to be unpredictable, he said.
“It’s hard to control people,” he said.
Keeping an eye on everything a customer does, whether they’ve properly washed their hands for example, is impossible, he said.
There is no sense in rushing to failure, and Mitsuolas favoured erring on the side of caution.
“I would rather be safe,” he said.
Plus, once restaurants reopen, Mitsuolas wondered whether people would even be in a big hurry to immediately return anyway.
“Some will be scared,” he said.
Maintaining optimism for the future, however, he said, “We’ve been very lucky so far. We get great support from the town. We are able to pay our bills and stay open, so what else could you ask for? Under the circumstances, we are very, very happy.”
Chris Vardas, owner and chef at Cedar’s Pub and Original T’s, also expressed concerns about the influx of people coming from outside the community, and said he did not plan to reopen at half capacity before June 1.
Expressing essentially identical concerns as Ralph, Vardas was not keen on spending thousands of dollars to restock his restaurants only for a second wave to prompt another government shutdown.
“That would be a waste,” he said, preferring to for the time being continue to play it safe for staff, the community, himself, and from a business owner’s perspective, his bottom line.
Despite the difficult situation, Vardas praised and expressed gratitude for the community’s ongoing support, which he called “remarkable.”
Over at the Sundre Hotel Restaurant, manager Sandy Foster said while they continue to offer a take-out service in the late afternoon and early evening, that there as of last week were no plans to partially reopen right away. Depending on how everything goes, they hope to open again in June.