Restaurateurs gripped by growing sense of dread as COVID-19 picture darkens


“I’m reliving the same panic I felt during the first wave.”

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Old Montreal restaurateur Graziella Battista has been fighting a familiar sense of dread since cancellations started pouring in Tuesday afternoon after Quebec recommended employers keep office workers home .

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“The anguish is back,” said Battista, whose Graziella restaurant on McGill St. is popular with area workers. “I’m reliving the same panic I felt during the first wave. It’s very hard on morale. It feels like there’s no way out.”

Battista was among thousands of Montreal restaurant owners and staff bracing for further restrictions to be unveiled by Premier François Legault in light of a worsening health situation that he called “critical.” Legault was scheduled to address Quebecers Thursday at 6 p.m.

Quebec’s public health authorities announced 2,736 COVID-19 cases on Thursday, 350 more than Wednesday and the highest one-day case count since Jan. 3.

“We want to avoid a lockdown at all costs,” Glenn Castanheira, head of the Montréal Centre-Ville downtown merchants group, said Thursday. “We’ve never contested the health measures, but we should point out that restaurants have not been the source of outbreaks.”

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A pressing concern for restaurateurs is to figure out what to do with the thousands of dollars’ worth of food and alcohol they purchased in anticipation of a busy holiday period.

Those plans went up in smoke as soon as the provincial government recommended Tuesday that employers favour remote work, effective immediately. Quebec also announced it had suspended a return-to-work order for public servants that had been put in place a month ago.

“The reaction was immediate. The phone started ringing off the hook,” Battista said. “The sense of panic was clear. People were cancelling — not for next week, but for that very evening or the next day. Now we have a lot more food than we need, and we need to do something it with it or risk losing it. Perhaps we need to start preparing takeout meals because we can’t afford to lose that food.”

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Paul DesBaillets, co-owner of the Burgundy Lion, says they’re looking at options including bringing back takeout meals.
Paul DesBaillets, co-owner of the Burgundy Lion, says they’re looking at options including bringing back takeout meals. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette files

Takeout meals are also on the list of scenarios under consideration at the Burgundy Lion group, according to co-owner Paul Desbaillets. His company’s establishments include the namesake pub in the Sud-Ouest borough, as well as Mile End’s Bishop & Bagg pub and the Brit & Chips restaurant in Old Montreal.

“We’re looking at all sorts of options,” Desbaillets said Thursday. “As any business would, we’re thinking about the future. There’s only so much guessing that can be done.”

Restaurateur Voula Galanis was still counting the cost of the work-from-home order Thursday as she waited for Premier Legault’s announcement.

“I understand why they’re doing that, but it was hard for us,” said Galanis, manager and part owner of Parc Ave.’s Mythos restaurant. “Any group that was a large group got cancelled days before the event. All my hospital groups that had 40, 50, 60 people, they cancelled. We went from being completely full on multiple days to just being full on a regular Saturday. Of course, none of this is what we had pre-COVID.”

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Having ordered “thousands and thousands” of dollars’ worth of alcohol, Mythos is now stuck with excess inventory.

“I have so much stock that I hope I sell it before next month,” said Galanis. “It’s a weird year. The situation is very difficult.”

And if restaurants are forced to close down for an extended period of time, the consequences could be severe.

“I’m very worried about what is going to happen after the Christmas period,” Battista said. “Everybody is expecting an increase in cases. This could destroy our industry.”

ftomesco@postmedia.com

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