TORONTO ─ As the foodservice-and-hospitality industry deals with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic on business, the industry’s associations are working around the clock to advocate on behalf of their memberships for continued government relief.
In a KML podcast moderated by editor/publisher Rosanna Caira, the leaders of Restaurants Canada, the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association (ORHMA), the Greater Toronto Hotel Association (GTHA) and the Hotel Association of Canada (HAC), as well as a partner of Toronto law firm Sotos LLP, came together virtually to discuss the implications of the pandemic.
While each of the panelists on the podcast believes the government is doing its best to deal with the ramifications of this pandemic, all stressed the need for more to be done over the coming weeks to ensure the industry can survive.
According to Susie Grynol, president and CEO of Ottawa-based Hotel Association of Canada, “Our governments have done a very good job of getting out early, focusing where they should be focused: on individuals and on those who are vulnerable, on public health and safety, making sure we have the right technology and supplies and that our for first responders are well taken care of. They’ve done their announcements in the right order. But there’s more to be done on the business side in terms of driving the economy, which specifically concerns this sector. We will see more announcements on that front. We’re in direct contact with finance and working very closely with their officials on a proposal as we speak. There’s more to come and we hope they’ll be focusing on that this week and next.”
From the national foodservice perspective, Shanna Munro, president and CEO of Restaurants Canada, says, “We’re encouraged by the measures introduced across the country so far. We’ve been encouraging government on the urgency that needs to take place to take more immediate action. For foodservice, restaurants that are closed still have to pay their rent. There’s no cash coming in. How can they do that? Our immediate priority is to maintain liquidity for the foodservice businesses so we can keep our staff employed with takeout and delivery and drive thrus that remain open. Their focus is now on how they can continue to serve their communities they operate within. We need help in strengthening the relief in the areas of loans, mortgages and especially rents ─ it’s a daunting issue as we move forward to April 1, as landlords expect to get paid but the money’s not there; so, what does that mean for the operator? The window for restaurants to survive COVID-19 is definitely closing so there’s a huge urgency from the industry to get relief,” she says.
For HAC, the wish list to government “falls into three key buckets,” says Grynol. “First is liquidity (deferring tax payments, forgoing tax payments, putting pressure on banks so they’re flexible), then employment and recovery. We have a number of different recommendations under those buckets. Last week the government addressed our concerns with employment,” she says, explaining that at first it was only those employees who would be off due to illness that could collect EI, but “last week they included laid-off individuals, and our hotel industry did have to lay off tens of thousands last week.” Still, even with those measures Grynol says there will be a three- or four-week waiting period before workers can collect, due to the system being overloaded.
From an Ontario perspective, Tony Elenis, president and CEO of ORHMA, believes “The entire Western world could have reacted quicker with prompt safety restrictions and controls and the WHO should have had better criteria to define a pandemic… But we now see the government leaders exemplifying true leadership. They’re communicating, collaborating and taking action. The priority is health; it’s about safety and controlling the spread of the virus, closing restaurants, restricting travel at the right steps and, of course, it’s tremendously impacting our industry, but it’s the right thing to do.” But with regard to the economic package, Elenis stresses that “remains to be seen as there has not been swift support yet.” He does add some provincial decisions are expected this week. “We’re advocating on all fronts and hoping for the best for our industry.”
For now, the top-two priorities are clear, says Elenis. “[First], employees have to be taken care of through a reform of EI. It comes up over and over again as the number-1 issue, even from business owners because they want their employees to survive. We’re talking about extending the layoff period time frame, because once they come back after 13 weeks, businesses won’t be able to support a severance package.” Secondly, it’s liquidity…it’s about leniency; but we need to also talk about delaying Hydro, utility bills, property taxes and rent. It’s a big issue that will put most under. We’re hearing that a lot of landlords are sticking to the books,” and expecting rent to be paid as usual. But Elenis is hopeful there will be changes this week when the Landlord Act comes under review.
Certainly, as Terry Mundell of the GTHA, notes, these are challenging times for government. “They’re trying to find solutions but this is the most complex environment any of us have ever been in.”
Governments, much like us, says Mundell are struggling to find the right solutions. “It’s still a real challenge to get the public-health situation looked after. Toronto Public Health, provincial and federal public health have communicated quite well, but clearly, we need more. All the politicians we’ve talked to, whether it’s a senior finance minister, the mayors, the councilors ─ they’re all in the same boat…they know they have to act, and they are, but this is far larger than anybody expected.”
While government has done its best to deal with the challenges, Allan Dick, partner at Sotos LLP, believes “Government messaging has been a little bit confusing. It’s hard to explain to people why they can’t go to a safe and clean restaurant, which can observe social-distancing protocols, yet those same people can go to a LCBO, or beer store or a crowded supermarket, where proper hygiene is so much harder to control.”
Dick applauds the Quebec government for implementing “a policy right off the bat for restaurants to reduce their capacities by half, which would allow for social distancing; given the other regulations that apply to restaurants. It was a good first measure, and probably something we should have introduced here [in the beginning],” says the lawyer, adding “The one thing governments have done properly is focus on employee support because …that’s fairly critical from a number of perspectives.” Making sure “employees can stay at home where warranted will keep people from engaging in risky practices if they feel desperate.”