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Restaurants, bars prepare to reopen in the Bow Valley

“I consider myself right in the middle on this,” said Where the Buffalo Roam's Mitch Narver. “I do want to go back to work, but I don’t want to go too early. As to whether or not this is too early, I really couldn’t say, because the numbers have been dropping pretty significantly, but they aren’t exactly non-existent at this point.”
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Oona Davis, owner of Where The Buffalo Roam Saloon, on Wednesday (Feb. 3). EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

BOW VALLEY – Premier Jason Kenney has announced a set of guidelines for the reopening of restaurants and bars in Alberta.

Beginning on Monday (Feb. 8), in-person dining will resume, and locally the industry has embraced the news with a mix of enthusiasm, hope and caution.

“I think it’s great,” said Frank Barbaro, owner and chef at Santa Lucia Trattoria in Canmore. “We’ve been fortunate enough that we’ve been able to continue doing pickups all the way through, but there’s a lot of people in the restaurant business who have had to shut the doors completely.

“It’s been tough on them. So, I’m happy for them, and I’m happy for us because I know a lot of our customers are looking forward to dining in.”

Santa Lucia has been doing takeout since before Christmas, when restrictions on in-person dining were put in place to try to curb a rapid spike in cases of the virus that causes COVID-19. The restaurant is celebrating its 28th anniversary and has been offering select 1993 menu items on special – at 1993 prices – to mark the occasion.

“We’re happy to do that, especially in times like this, people need a little something to look forward to,” Barbaro said. “A little ray of sunshine. It’s nice that we’re able to offer that.”

The easing of these most recent set of restrictions – that came into effect at midnight on Dec. 12 – were presented by Premier Kenney on Jan. 29 as part of a gradual path forward using hospitalizations as a benchmark.

“This must be done carefully, slowly and in a way that’s driven not by opinions but by data,” Kenney said.

Early steps saw changes to guidelines on outdoor gatherings, funerals and personal and wellness services on Jan. 18. The first benchmark for easing restrictions on Feb. 8 is 600 hospitalizations provided the numbers are on a downward trend. On Tuesday (Feb. 2), 556 people were reported in hospital with COVID-19 by Alberta Health Services.

In Banff, one of the iconic restaurants on Banff Avenue will be taking a couple of extra days before reopening its doors.

“At the Grizzly House, we’re going to open on Feb. 11,” said operations manager Francis Hopkins. “That timing is better for us, just in time for the long weekend and the holiday week, including Valentine’s Day.”

Family Day falls on Feb. 15 this year, and it will be hard for reopened businesses to gauge in advance how this relaxing of restrictions will play out, but Family Day week is often bustling in what can be a slower time of year.

The Grizzly House decided to not offer takeout options during this most recent period with increased public health restrictions.

“The main reason why is because the majority of what we sell is fondue,” Hopkins said. “So, the cooking of the food takes place at the table, and we can’t really translate that into takeout.”

A number of factors play into the decision to pivot to takeout during a lockdown. A strong customer base and a history of doing to-go orders is an asset, but the type of food a restaurant regularly serves is also important.

Some menu items travel better than others. Pizza and pasta dishes travel comparatively well, while things like soft shell tacos and fresh cut fries are more difficult to execute with consistency. Fondue is a non-starter.

“The other thing is because of the nature of the population of Banff, and the critical mass of visitors not being here, we have an oversupply of restaurants compared to the number of potential customers when we’re in a lockdown,” Hopkins said.

“It’s quite a bit different than Canmore, where the resident population is higher, so there’s a bit more opportunity for takeout.”

It’s clear that each restaurant is faced with a different set of challenges as the pandemic drags on, but a general dissatisfaction with how information and guidelines are being shared by the government is setting in across the board.

“All along, I think there’s been a lack of communication,” Barbaro said, noting a lack of uniformity on how rules are applied depending on the industry. “I think a lot of people are getting frustrated because of the inconsistencies.”

The newest guidelines are more straightforward than in the past. Step 1 changes focus on restaurants, pubs, bars, lounges and cafés, children’s sport and performance activities, and indoor fitness facilities. Steps 2, 3, and 4 would require meeting the benchmarks of 450, 300 and 150 hospitalizations and declining, respectively.

Three weeks has been set as a minimum timeframe between steps, and at each, more restrictions would be eased for all businesses and services.

Active case counts will continue to guide decisions on re-implementing restrictions if need be, but at the very least this gives those who work in the service industry a roadmap to follow in the coming months. But public trust in government has been eroded, and some establishments will be taking a bit more time to assess the situation before making a decision on reopening.

“I’m a bit nervous about it,” said Oona Davis, owner of Where The Buffalo Roam Saloon in Canmore. “I feel like we could open again, but then we could close again shortly after. I don’t know that I’m really trusting the information that I’m getting, and I don’t necessarily trust our provincial government.”

As premier, Kenney is taking a lot of heat for how pandemic mitigation measures have been handled to date.

“I don’t know that he is on the same page as the health professionals, and I haven’t, from the beginning, felt that he took this very seriously,” Davis said.

“I don’t know what his true motivations are, and I’m not sure that our health is his priority ... I also haven’t necessarily agreed with his timing on how he’s done things previously. I think he’s been slow to put on restrictions in the past.”

For many in the industry, the Christmas shutdown was awkwardly executed, preceded as it was two-and-a-half weeks earlier by a tightening of regulations that were difficult for restaurant staff to enforce, and that even to a layman appeared unlikely to curb a rapidly accelerating case count.

“OK, I’m allowed to open,” Davis said. “But I don’t know right now how good I feel about doing that.”

One thing is certain, as the pandemic continues with no end in sight, deciding on the right course of action is going to get more and more
difficult for people who work face-to-face with the public.

“Actually, I don’t know what to think,” Hopkins said. “Obviously we want to get back to business, and we have almost 50 people who work here who want to be back at work. But, there is a certain apprehension about the infection rate of the virus and the impact on health because we’re dealing with a lot of different people coming and going.

“My philosophy is it looks like this isn’t going away any time soon and adaptation is the name of the game these days. Adaptation right now means being open and being as safe as possible.”

Mitch Narver has stayed employed through the lockdown at Where the Buffalo Roam, fielding retail and takeout orders, in addition to mixing signature cocktails to-go, which is a temporary allowance by the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis agency designed to help boost sales. He is also uncertain about returning to normal business with bums in seats.

“I consider myself right in the middle on this,” Narver said. “I do want to go back to work, but I don’t want to go too early. As to whether or not this is too early, I really couldn’t say, because the numbers have been dropping pretty significantly, but they aren’t exactly non-existent at this point.”

While directives from the government on reopening are clear, the future of dining in is still a work in progress. Please contact your favourite restaurants to find out more about their plans over the coming weeks.