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B.C.'s reopening plan greeted with hope, relief, skepticism

Business community urges British Columbians to be patient as service economy reopens
The Rio Theatre and other Metro Vancouver entertainment venues now have a clear pathway to getting back to business under the province’s four-stage post-pandemic reopening plan.

As theatre owner Rahim Manji prepares to fire up the projectors and pop some popcorn once more, he’s quick to emphasize that his excitement is beating out his stress levels with the prospect of reopening closer to reality.

“I’m hopeful – and scared a little bit,” said the proprietor of B.C.-based independent chain Hollywood 3 Cinemas PM Ltd. “Because they’ve done this before, where they’ve given a date, and then it’s pushed.”

With the province unveiling plans last week to loosen restrictions that have kept throngs of businesses in stasis the past 15 months, cinemas, nightclubs, gyms and bars are all primed to draw revenue at levels not seen prior to the pandemic.

While Manji is wary of depending on specific dates – the earliest theatres can reopen at limited capacity is June 15 – the province is basing its four-stage reopening plan on hitting specific metrics rather than specific dates.

B.C. is in the first stage of its plan, where about 60% of the adult population has received at least one vaccine dose and COVID-19 cases are declining.

Stage 2 depends on at least 65% of adults in the province having their first COVID-19 vaccine dose and cases and hospitalizations continuing to decline. The earliest date B.C. would enter Stage 2 is June 15, and those targets appear easily reachable based on current trends.

Within Stage 2, restaurants will be able to extend liquor service to midnight from the present 10 p.m. cut-off time, cinemas can reopen at limited capacity and more intra-provincial tourism will be permitted. Meanwhile, provincial officials will be engaging in a consultation process to prepare for larger indoor and outdoor gatherings with safety protocols.

“I had tears in my eyes,” Ian Tostenson, president and CEO of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association, recalls from the morning he was briefed on the reopening plan. “There was so much business uncertainty. It was hard for us to counsel people in which way they should go.”

He said the four-stage plan is allowing restaurants to finally make sizable investments and rehiring plans as they ramp up activity.

“Be patient,” Tostenson said. “Because I think a lot of [smaller] restaurants, it’s going to take them a while... to hire, to reload their supplies.”

Stage 3 of the reopening could happen as early as July 1, depending on at least 70% of the adult population receiving at least one vaccine dose, while COVID-19 case counts remain low and hospitalizations continue to decline.

That stage would usher in an end to group limits for indoor or outdoor dining, as well as the reopening of casinos, nightclubs and bingo halls at limited capacity.

The BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association is working on the assumption that about 4,500 of the province’s approximately 15,000 restaurants have closed during the pandemic.

Tostenson said it’s hard to be definitive about closures, because it remains unclear in many cases whether a restaurant has closed permanently or if the owner is trying to weather the economic storm of the pandemic.

“Now that’s going to come back because we’re also hearing that people are jumping in, and there are concepts coming into B.C. because I think B.C. is showing very well as an opportunity,” he said.

“We know from outside of B.C., the states that have opened up in the U.S. have just been like, Roaring ’20s busy, and Australia has been Roaring ’20s busy. So, there’s so much pent-up demand. The challenge I think we’re going to have is managing that.”

Jeff Guignard, executive director of the Alliance of Beverage Licensees BC (ABLE BC), said the reopening plan has provoked a “massive sigh of relief” among liquor-serving establishments across the province.

“What’s been frustrating about this is we’ve never known what we’re working towards,” said Guignard, whose industry group advocates on behalf of bars, clubs, private liquor stores and cannabis retailers.

“It doesn’t really matter what the timing is, what the protocols are, [as long as] we know what they are. Then we can plan, and we can become partners in this.”

He said the extension of liquor-serving hours beyond 10 p.m. is significant for the industry, owing to 30% to 60% of liquor sales coming after that hour, depending on the establishment.

“Little things like that can be a massive difference for industry,” Guignard said, adding the long-ailing nightclub sector likely wouldn’t be doing much business anyway if alcohol sales ceased at 10 p.m.

He anticipates the nightlife sector will be one of the slowest to make a comeback.

“I mean nightclubs are a business model based on attracting a large number of people in a small space, ignoring physical distancing. So we haven’t gotten sufficient amount of vaccinated people out there to make that make sense,” he said.

Stage 4 could come as early as Sept. 7, but it will depend on more than 70% of the adult population receiving at least one dose, while COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations remain low.

By then, large concerts will be permitted for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, while sports teams like the Vancouver Canucks could also have the opportunity to welcome in more fans into the stands when the National Hockey League season resumes in the fall.

In the meantime, Manji is hoping various levels of government don’t forget businesses still need support even as they reopen. The Hollywood 3 chain lost one of its five locations following a dispute with a landlord.

“They didn’t want to work with us during the pandemic, and so we ended up closing that [White Rock] theatre down. They wanted to raise our rents during the pandemic, and it just didn’t make sense,” said Manji, who is hoping to screen a mix of new features in the coming months as well as ones Canadians may have missed theatrically during the health crisis.

“It’s not turning on a light switch. As soon as you open the doors, it’s not like we’re back. We have so many bills that we’re behind on, especially for the independents, that we still need continued support.”