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Restaurants scale back as COVID-19 surges; a pizza fixture on Blanshard closes permanently

Boston Pizza on Blanshard and Hillside in Victoria has closed permanently
After 35 years, Boston Pizza at Hillside and Blanshard streets has closed its doors, unable to survive the latest wave of the COVID-19 virus. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Restaurants are feeling the pinch of the pandemic’s latest wave as the Omicron COVID-19 variant sweeps into the workforce and diners shy away.

John’s Place, a popular breakfast spot on Pandora Avenue, is closing Mondays and Tuesdays for the rest of January, citing staff shortages and the need to protect the health of staff.

That led to an outpouring of support on Facebook, as customers praised owner John Cantin for keeping his staff safe.

For Jeremy Dewey, owner of the Boston Pizza franchise at Hillside Avenue and Blanshard Street, the latest wave of the virus was the last nail in the coffin.

He closed the restaurant permanently on Sunday after a 35-year run in which he worked his way from server to owner.

“We have tried to navigate through every wave of this global pandemic, public health orders, staff shortages and overall increases in the cost of living … with no success,” Dewey said in a letter taped to the front doors.

“We would like to thank our guests, staff and this wonderful community that has supported us through the good times and the bad … it’s been a slice.”

Cliff Leir, owner of Fol Epi restaurant, said he’s only allowing takeout for lunch to help protect staff for sit-in dinner service later in the day.

“We’ve reduced the café service so we can have the flexibility,” said Leir. “It’s tough because the government is saying the [Omicron] numbers are far worse than what we know, but they aren’t putting [restrictions] on us … we’ll just keep hanging on.”

Leir said the traditional slower months after Christmas seem even slower in light of the latest wave. “People are starting to be cautious about going out.”

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry warned businesses last week to brace for widespread sickness among staff, at a time when help-wanted signs are in almost every restaurant window.

Employment website Indeed had 165 listings Monday for restaurant workers in the Victoria region, ranging from waiters and baristas to supervisors and managers.

Ian Tostenson, chief executive of the B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association, said the industry’s greatest concern continues to be the shortage of labour. The association says the restaurant industry has lost about 20% of its workforce since the start of COVID-19 — about 40,000 jobs — and it will likely slip further.

“The only real positive part of this is it’s not summer time … it’s the time of year a lot of restaurants go on reduced hours or close for a few weeks to ­evaluate, plan,” said Tostenson.

Tostenson said several restaurants are now starting to apply to the federal government’s skilled foreign workers program. It had been put on a back burner through much of COVID, but the process is now underway, ensuring many eateries will have more access to employees for the busier summer months.