Comment: Incentivizing the cautious

Getting customers back into restaurants will be no small challenge in the wake of a pandemic

Living in the shadow of COVID for so long, restaurants offer the perfect escape for when Canadians feel safer to go out again.

As we inch towards a more normalized economy, the focus will now be on how we can make people feel more comfortable about going out and about again.

Our economy needs it, our foodservice industry desperately needs it, but it is not going to be easy.

In a recent survey, conducted in mid-May by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab and Angus Reid, 60 per cent of Canadians are either fine with going to a restaurant, or are willing to do so, although cautious. Still, 40 per cent intend to continue to avoid restaurants. So, in essence, two out of every five Canadians are not even thinking of going to a restaurant. Some of that group will tolerate curbside service or delivery, but many just do not want to take a chance.

At the provincial level, Ontario stands out as the one region where most consumers will continue to avoid restaurants. A total of 51 per cent of Ontarians intend to continue to avoid restaurants for the time being. The most confident province is Quebec, where only 27 per cent of consumers are not willing to go to a restaurant yet. That is almost half of the Ontario rate. Percentages of people wanting to avoid restaurants in Manitoba and the Atlantic provinces are high, but both places are in the middle of their worst waves of COVID to date.

Statistics Canada is telling us that the accommodation and foodservice sector is hiring about 74 per cent of the number of employees it had before the pandemic started, back in March 2020. Revenues are at 76 per cent of the levels we saw before the pandemic. The sector is facing significant challenges but not so much that Canadians should underestimate the sector’s resiliency. It will recover, no doubt, but it will also need some help.

While the vaccination campaign is progressing well, COVID variants are really making our vaccination efforts a race against time. Most Canadians will think about safety and their health before thinking about having a meal on the patio with family and friends. But living in fear is a terrible thing, and restaurants offer the perfect escape for when Canadians are willing to go out again, while taking proper precautions.

Many provinces and municipalities have provided financial assistance and support to accommodate restaurants in pursuit of more cash flow, as well as the funds to create new outdoor space to serve patrons safely in place of indoor dining. On the other hand, the federal government has made it quite clear it does not intend to do much for foodservice, at least not directly. Supporting the private sector without any intervention for non-profit organizations or Crown corporations has not been a popular option for Ottawa since the start of the pandemic. The airline situation was a perfect example.

In the United States, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund opened its portal this month, allowing hard-hit restaurants, bars, food trucks and more to apply for US$28.6 billion in grants. This fund will provide some assistance to make dining establishments safer. A massive amount compared to what our own operators here have received.

Now that we all see an end to the pandemic, sort of, we need to think of ways to get people going out and about again. A recent survey suggests that many Canadians have gained weight since the start of the pandemic, essentially due to our even more sedentary lifestyles. If people are fearful of places like restaurants, our economy and small businesses will struggle. Over the past six months or so, people will be out no matter what; the pent-up demand for social gatherings will be a strong influence. But restaurant operators will need to make their patrons feel safe.

Depending on how things progress over the next 12 months, incentivizing Canadians could also play a key role and would send a more reassuring message. For example, tax credits could be granted for patronizing restaurants and hotels, as well as frequenting gyms, yoga classes, and other well-being services. The Canadian economy lost 207,000 jobs in April, and our unemployment rate went up again. Supporting small businesses and the service sector will be key for a strong sustainable economic recovery. Given the flexible nature of many of these professional opportunities, the majority of these jobs are occupied by women, those most hard hit by the pandemic.

Many will want to stay home for safety, and we need to respect that, but others still will need that extra nudge after a year and a half of hibernation. It is a different market out there, and governments can play a role by being more positive and reassuring, while keeping everyone as safe as possible.

About the author

Contributor

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, and professor in food distribution policy, Dalhousie University.

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