Montreal restaurants, bars protest closures & lack of support from Quebec

The financial aid promised by the province nearly two months ago has not arrived.

Protesters gathered on Tuesday morning in a deserted Place Jacques-Cartier, their hands clutching placards and beating pots and pans, to sound off against the continued shuttering of bars and restaurants in Montreal. The event was organized by the Union des Tenanciers de Bars du Québec (UTBQ) in protest of the prolonged shutdown of food service establishments across the province, although the focus leaned heavily toward the industry in Montreal.

“We are not the problem, we are the solution!” formed the refrain repeated by the group’s speakers, the crowd before them composed of nearly 50 disgruntled restaurateurs, bar owners, food service workers and patrons alike. All were gathered to rail against the radio silence they have received from François Legault’s government regarding the future of their livelihood, and for some, their life savings. (Watch a video of the protest here.)

“We’re here today mainly for one reason: We want to reopen our bars and our restaurants!” cried Jean-Jacques Beauchamp, CEO of the Quebec Bar Owners’ Association.

First among the stated demands is to reopen their establishments for the holiday season, which is typically the most profitable period during the seven months terrasses are closed. But their motivation isn’t only driven by profit (although at this point, “profit” really means “debt management”). In their eyes, reopening bars is the “solution” for two growing health concerns: irresponsible holiday gatherings, as well as the general decline in mental health brought on by extended periods of isolation.

Montreal restaurants bars
Montreal restaurants, bars protest closures & lack of support from Quebec

“We have the solutions: that we reopen, and we take care of the customers and everybody else,” states Peter Sergakis, the president of UTBQ and owner of over 40 bars and restaurants in Montreal and the surrounding area.“We followed all the measures enforced by Santé Québec. People were wearing masks, there’s no problem for customers. Where the customers are going to get sick is the private parties for Christmas and New Year’s where Legault has no supervision for those people, unfortunately.

“Because people, for eight months, they want to go out, they’re getting mentally sick, they have to go out. If they don’t do that, they’re going to celebrate at home and there’s going to be more sick people.”

The bar owners’ scorn against these red-zone closures is amplified by what they feel is an asymmetric response from the provincial government towards the food and beverage industry when compared to overcrowded retail spaces.

Beauchamp attacked this point in his opening statements at Tuesday’s protest: “It’s the second time around in six months now that we are closing bars and restaurants. If we all go today in a Costco, or a Walmart, or any shopping centre, there is no distanciation, no respect for the rules. All of us here, we implemented the distanciation, and we were shut down, or reduced hours, reduced capacity.”

These core grievances are doubtful in their merit, however, as reopening after Jan. 11 — never mind the holiday season — seems to be less and less likely.

Quebec’s daily COVID-19 infection rate has stabilized but shows no indication of returning to summertime levels. On Sunday, Ontario followed Quebec’s lead and shut down bars and restaurants, implementing even stricter holiday protocols than Legault’s administration. On Tuesday, Alberta enacted their second state of public health emergency, including restricting eateries to a maximum of 25 per cent occupancy, although these measures have already been rebuked by medical professionals as being inadequate and may still change as the situation progresses.

Another obstacle likely to halt the UTBQ’s aspirations is the evolution of our understanding of the virus. During summer, studies showing potential airborne transmission of the coronavirus were being considered, but not yet incorporated into public health measures. Widespread terrasse availability coupled with the ability to open doors and windows to increase ventilation reduced the risk of transmission in the only establishments where unmasked patrons were necessary. After all, how does one eat with their mouths covered?

On Nov. 3, however, the Public Health Agency of Canada updated their COVID-19 guidelines to include aerosol transmission as a valid concern. That means that the plastic barriers and surgical masks enforced in dining rooms are less certain to prevent transmission. Eating and drinking indoors is therefore far more precarious now for staff and customers alike than it was three months ago.

“The restaurants have ventilation systems and larger areas,” counters Sergakis. “In the houses, we don’t know what people are doing. I’m not blaming them, because they’ve been deprived from seeing people and all that. But the risk is greater in backyards and in houses, and they’re going to private parties, and maybe not everybody is going to wear masks. In our establishment, we follow the rules to the letter.”

Despite the unlikelihood of bars reopening before transmission rates decline, the UTBQ’s discontent is still justifiable. Although reopening is their priority, they also demand the government follow through the subsidies promised in early October.

These grants announced by the minister of economy and innovation, Pierre Fitzgibbon, were to subsidize up to 80 per cent of restaurant and bar owner’s expenses, capping at $15,000. These loans have yet to materialize, according to Sergakis, and even still, they were barely enough to cover the first 28-day closure period, which has now been extended twice.

“Trudeau is doing okay with us. The provincial government is not doing well with us. They’ve made a proposal that’s so complicated, the owners need a special accountant to provide financial statements to the government,” Sergakis claims.

“The small percentage of the people that managed, they still haven’t gotten their money. Their requirements are complicated, and even the few of them that made the application because they hired an accountant, they still haven’t gotten their loan. We hope the government is going to change the method of giving us the money, but they have to give us more grants. We cannot be closed for eight months almost now, otherwise almost all the industry is going to finish. And we’re talking 300k employees that work in those establishments.”

The government’s failure to come through with these loans elicits another valid complaint from the group, principally the lack of access they have to speak and negotiate with Legault’s administration.

Montreal restaurants bars
Montreal restaurants, bars protest closures & lack of support from Quebec

“Why don’t we have access to talk to the government? No access at all for eight months. That’s enough for us. All of you have things to pay, families, mortgages. How are you going to pay that with 100 per cent expenses and zero income?” This, according to Beauchamp, is the entire reason for the protest in the first place: to force a government that refuses to engage with them to hear their side.

Though the chances of reopening remain slim, this last point does raise a question about whether a more measured, comprehensive approach could have been taken by the government, had only lines of communication been put in place.

Why have we still not allowed bar permit-holders to sell alcohol to go, as is legal for restaurant permit holders under article 28 of Quebec’s liquor law?

Why, again, was outdoor consumption banned at the same time as indoor consumption, when it is shown to be significantly less risky than dining inside in an enclosed area? Even now, despite the cold, outdoor eating and drinking isn’t a ridiculous prospect. The continued success of events like Igloofest proves that Montrealers are quite comfortable eating and drinking in sub-zero environments.

The concern is that the survival of an entire industry, from allowing them to conduct business to subsidizing them when they are forced shut, is being done unilaterally, and on unfair grounds. As public houses and dining rooms close, COVID-19 has continued to expand aggressively in workplaces and schools with no sign the government will act decisively to crush the spread.

With the holidays quickly approaching, we’ll soon see the effects of Legault’s “moral contract” and whether the concerns of the medical community will be proven right.

In that circumstance, things only look to become worse for an already battered industry that is no longer willing to pay the bill without having a seat at the table. ■

For more on restaurants and bars in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.