Bars and restaurants struggle to stay afloat amid COVID-19

By Elesha George

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At the end of this week and into the weeks ahead, hundreds of restaurant and bar employees will join hotel and cruise line workers who have been laid off because of the economic fallout caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve been affected quite heavily; as such I can’t see us being able to stay open much longer,” Alex Grimley, owner of Sheer Rocks and Catherine’s Café, told a conference meeting on Tuesday.

Papa Zouk restaurant closed last week, leaving eight people jobless, because its owner, Bert Kirchner, said he would be risking his life if he remained open.

“I had a pneumonia for seven weeks in January and February and I’m in the high-risk bracket. I cannot afford to get sick. It will probably kill me,” he told Observer.

Twelve staff members from Le Bistro are also facing the breadline come this Saturday, after the business owner decided that it was better to close down temporarily.

And Lance Leonhardt, owner of Jacqui O’s, said, “Sunday is our last day and then we’re going to try to stay ready to open at a minute’s notice if something changes by Easter.”

If there is no change, he added, then the business will have to shut down until November and that is if patrons don’t lose interest in returning by then – a situation that would put 14 more people out of work.

“Twelve of them are single mothers so it’s a very bad situation. Fortunately, I have a saving scheme for all my employees, so a number of them have been saving money since November,” the Jacqui O’s owner shared.

Businessman Jeff Hadeed’s four businesses, which include Big Banana and the Larder, employ around 200 people. He told Observer that his airport-based restaurant will open for the last time on Saturday.

“Based on what’s happening at the airport, we probably will follow shortly after with the other businesses, partly because there is gonna be no business [and] partly because it’s part of what needs to be done to try and curb the spread of the virus,” he said.

Between Big Banana’s two locations, the Larder and South Point hotel, the companies pay close to EC$8 million a year in wages.

Seemingly lost for words, Hadeed said, “I don’t know. It’s [the loss] so big that I don’t even know,” as he described the situation “like a chain reaction going backwards”.

Vanessa and Ton Smit, who own Cloggy’s overlooking Falmouth Harbour, have had to scale down business as a result of the 25-person per room limitation enforced by the government. Cloggy’s went from servicing over 100 people a night to less than 30, just enough to cover the cost of food products and to pay their 15 employees.

“Up until a week ago Sunday night we were packed, everyone was having a good time, things went on as normal [but] on the Tuesday when it was said that there would be a limitation, the staff came up to me and asked ‘Am I going to lose my job, I’m scared’. So, we stayed open for them,” Vanessa Smit said.

“We’ve also stayed open for my salad man, my tomato man, my egg man, my fish man, my lobster man – all these people, they rely on me because I try to do as much local produce as possible,” she told Observer.

The business’ take-away option is also part of the reason that Cloggy’s is still open. “We’ll keep going. As long as it’s not drastic here, then we’ll keep going,” Ton Smit declared.

Meanwhile, Christine Taibi, co-owner of Paparazzi Pizzeria & Bar in English Harbour, which also offers a take-away option, said business was “nearly at a virtual stop”.

“We have a lot of take-aways because the harbour here is still full of boats. Although the yachties that are on board are not necessarily exiting their boats, they still have the opportunity to take away food,” she explained.

For as long as that service remains an option, all 12 employees can time share to make a bit of money.

“We were coming down to Sailing Week, this was supposed to be the busiest time of the year and it’s come down to virtually the no-business time of the year,” Taibi added.

That sentiment was shared by Karine Pecquet-Vidal who owns Nomad restaurant. She said, “It is extremely quiet; we have never experienced something like that before … I think people are scared to spend money.”

She continued, “We have been operating at a loss for the past two to three weeks. The only reason that we are still open is because we are trying to support our staff. As much as we can, we want to provide them with some work hours; even if they’re reduced, it’s better than none.” Pecquet-Vidal said, even with the best intentions, Nomad cannot sustain this and so they, too, will be closing next week. They will use that time to begin early renovations.