Old Montreal Restaurateurs Are Agitating For Authorization to Reopen Eating Rooms

An empty street in the Old Montreal neighborhood. | Nicolas McComber/Getty Images

The Quebec government has outlined various phases for reopening, but isn’t giving any specific dates to restaurants

A number of Montreal restaurateurs took to the streets on Wednesday, protesting the lack of information they’ve received about when they can potentially reopen their dining rooms.

According to the Canadian Press (via Global News), a group of about 30 restaurant owners marched a short distance from Place Jacques-Cartier to Montreal’s city hall on Wednesday morning, banging pots and pans.

It doesn’t seem that the restaurant owners were directly protesting the ongoing coronavirus lockdown in Montreal — rather, the point seems to have been to demand information from the Quebec government about when restaurants can return to business.

The protesters were mostly from restaurants in Old Montreal, including the owners of restaurants Chez Eric, Le Homard Fou, Trattoria Gio, and John Michael’s Pub.

While the demonstration was small-scale (with the protesters adhering to social distancing guidelines), it seems they’re not alone in their sentiments. A survey from Quebec’s restaurant association in mid-May suggested that 72 percent of restaurant owners in Quebec want to reopen imminently, even if that means operating at 50 percent of their normal capacity. The same survey also indicated that a majority of Quebec restaurants are fearful for their ability to stay open past the end of 2020 unless they can reopen soon.

But it also doesn’t seem that reopening would resolve everything — a majority of restaurants in that survey also indicated that they wouldn’t be able to make ends meet if they were restricted to 50 percent capacity (although, like the option of serving takeout and delivery, it would slow their economic fall).

Old Montreal restaurants could be a particularly interesting case study — restaurant owners in the neighbourhood are clearly eager to be open for as much of the warmer spring and summer months as possible, since that’s when venues typically make most of their money.

But whether those crowds will actually materialize is a huge unknown: plenty of Old Montreal restaurants rely on tourist dollars to boost their bottom line, and it’s obvious that tourist numbers in Montreal will be drastically lower than usual this year, meaning restaurants would be fighting for a slice of a tiny pie. And if they were allowed to open immediately, there would be no pie at all: hotels and borders are still closed, and out-of-town visitors are practically nonexistent now and for at least the next month.

The City of Montreal has taken small steps to help restaurateurs recover for when they’re allowed to reopen, particularly by encouraging outdoor dining, which poses a lower risk of transmitting COVID-19 in comparison to dining in a confined, indoor space. To that end, terrasse permit fees in Ville-Marie (which includes Old Montreal) have been slashed to practically nothing for this year, and the city is granting permits for larger terrasses where feasible.

But the city can’t authorize restaurants or bars to reopen — that’s the responsibility of the provincial government, which has so far avoided giving a concrete timeline for restaurant reopenings (much to the irritation of the protesting restaurateurs). However, there are a few hints about when it might happen.

Gouvernement du Québec/Official

This week, the Quebec government outlined a structured system for reopening the province. That chart (shown above) places restaurants in the sixth phase of reopening, with four reopening phases having already been completed, and the fifth phase beginning next week. Restaurant reopenings are then split into another two phases, with the first phase likely requiring that restaurants operate at a limited capacity.

But restaurants in Montreal will likely have to wait weeks, not days, for news about when they can reopen — because Greater Montreal has far more COVID-19 cases than any other part of Quebec, restaurants in the city and suburbs (including the South Shore and Laval) will likely have to wait longer than places like Quebec City and the regions.

As of Wednesday, Quebec had 49,139 COVID-19 cases, 24,611 of which were on the island of Montreal. Laval had a further 5,269, and Montérégie (which includes the South Shore) had 6,401.

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