The pandemic may serve as an opportunity for the restaurant industry to innovate in order to avoid closures as public health measures limit the sale of booze and erode already thin profit margins, say addiction and business experts.
Dr. Rupi Brar said the industry has a chance to pivot in ways that satisfy consumer demand while considering its heavy dependence on high markups on alcohol as well as the negative consequences associated with it.
“We know that the production and marketing and distribution of alcohol does create employment and generate income, but the question is, at what cost?” said Brar, an addiction medicine specialist and consultant in substance use disorders at St. Paul’s and Surrey Memorial hospitals in Metro Vancouver.
She said harms related to alcohol use amount to about $14 billion a year, including for health care.
Restaurants and bars have fought the restriction of a 10 p.m. stop on alcohol sales in British Columbia and similar limits elsewhere in the country, but many have come up with new ways to make money and keep much of their staff employed.
Brar said she and her colleagues nationally have noticed a sharp spike in alcohol consumption during the pandemic, with some of it related to anxiety, including among people who have returned to drinking after years of abstinence.
“There’s no better time than now to really start to think about ways that we can mitigate these harms but still be able to provide access to alcohol,” she said.
Tim Stockwell, scientist at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria, said alcohol sales at liquor stores have already been maintained as an essential service but provincial health officers’ decisions to limit sales hours at bars and restaurants are justified.
“It’s a complex argument and a balance is needed,” he said of the economic and health factors linked to alcohol. “Bars are like petri dishes for the spread of this virus. Alcohol policy needs to be a priority to protect our public health and safety.
“Clearly, businesses will suffer. It is a reality and they do need sympathy. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of compromising the health of the population and continuing to place a burden, an unnecessary burden, on the health-care system.”
Stockwell said the centre has received funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada to collect alcohol sales data during the pandemic to determine whether consumption from liquor stores and premises including bars and restaurants has fluctuated based on various measures across the country.
Targeted restrictions of alcohol sales may be needed in order to preserve businesses that are financially suffering, he said.
“We have to have a suite of policies that have overall beneficial effects of reducing viral spread and protecting precious health-care resources.”
Mark von Schellwitz, vice-president of Restaurants Canada for the western region, said he agrees with Ontario and Quebec’s regulations to limit alcohol sales only in areas where COVID-19 cases are increasing.
He said a similar policy should be adopted in B.C., where Dr. Bonnie Henry has resisted that move and closed nightclubs and banquet halls in early September as COVID-19 cases started rising.
“Some of our members are saying, ‘Why can’t we have a targeted approach by region as well?’ ” he said.
Von Schellwitz said that unlike parties and other gatherings that may account for the spread of the disease, bars and restaurants offer a controlled, safe environment where staff are trained to follow pandemic regulations, such as physical distancing.
Limitations on the number of diners in establishments have forced the industry to innovate in several ways including selling meal kits of raw ingredients, establishing so-called ghost kitchens where meals are cooked and delivered and creating more patio dining, he said.
While takeout delivery has also increased, costs of up to 35 per cent from third-party apps have been a big concern, von Schellwitz added.
“Whether you’re located in Alberta, Ontario, B.C., all restauranteurs are doing whatever they can to help their particular business survive,” he said.
The industry wants the B.C. government to permanently continue pandemic-related policies, such as the wholesale pricing of alcohol for licensed establishments and allowing alcohol sales with delivery orders.
The B.C. New Democrats promised to keep both changes in the release of its election platform on Tuesday.
Prof. Jarrett Vaughan, who specializes in the hospitality industry at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder school of business, said innovation during and after the pandemic will be key for the restaurant industry, which already has a high failure rate.
Some establishments have previously tried to generate revenue by increasing the cost of particular drinks based on high demand on a given evening, he said, adding that pricing model has not become widespread though it illustrates a focus on alcohol as a moneymaker.
The service offered by restaurants is the draw for diners, who may be keen to gradually return for that experience rather than other innovations, Vaughan said.
“By and large, when you offer a service, it’s really the personal touch that people are looking for. And that is a very difficult thing to innovate beyond because you can’t take the human element of out of it. And the human element is very expensive.”
Camille Bains, The Canadian Press
Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.