Touch ‘n’ Taste

DINE-IN CUSTOMERS: A couple dining at the Touch ‘n’ Taste Restaurant in Couva last year. Restaurants depend mainly on dine-in customers and say the continuing extensions on no in-house dining are placing them at greater risks of closing down. —Photo: JERMAINE CRUICKSHANK

The hospitality industry continues to be hard-hit by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, says Trinidad and Tobago Restaurant Week (TTRW) creator Shira Mohammed.

A number of restaurants have had to temporarily reduce staff and in some cases completely close operations following the initial Government-imposed restrictions to in-house dining, Mohammed said during a WhatsApp exchange with the Express on Monday.

The TTRW organiser said Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley’s announcement to extend those measures, during a news conference on Saturday, “has created a stir in the industry” that would inevitably lead to mass unemployment within the sector.

The eighth edition of TTRW, utilising curb side pick-up and home delivery, is set for September 25 to October 4.

“Restaurants are now faced with the hard decision of having to let go staff and some even close their doors as overhead costs are simply too high to maintain. Hundreds of families will be affected as the unemployment rate will soon spike within the industry,” Mohammed warned.

Joe Pires, owner of Samurai Japanese sushi restaurant and the Island Beer Chill & Grill sports bar chain, said while he understands the safety concerns despite concessions the restrictions have put his business severely in the red.

Despite concessions from creditors and understanding landlords the downturn in sales have forced a lay-off of almost all his staff at Island Beer’s South Park, San Fernando, location, Pires said.

“I have no problems in understanding the restrictions. We have gone into grab-and-go meals, delivering to gas stations and other convenient stores to get income coming. But it’s not enough. There is no income coming in and we still have to pay rent and some staff. We have had to put equity back into (the restaurant) to save life and pay staff. With no in-dining sales it affects us greatly and if there is little to no support for grab-and-go and curbside how are you going to pay bills?” Pires questioned when he spoke to the Express via phone on Monday.

Bjorn Rezende, director of Buzz Bar & Restaurant, shared a similar account, saying a continuous fall in sales has led to over 90 per cent lay-offs at their locations at One Woodbrook Place, Port of Spain, and C3 Centre, San Fernando locations.

“Like every other restaurant within the industry, we continue to be severely impacted by these restrictions. We were forced to make the difficult decision of laying off over 90 per cent of our staff, most of whom have the responsibility of providing for their families. We have seen an unprecedented 95 per cent decline in sales as a result, as offering takeaway and delivery services are simply not sustainable at this time,” Rezende told the Express via WhatsApp on Monday.

Mohammed urged Government to re-look their policy on in-house dining. In May the Ministry of Health worked with restaurateurs to create detailed guidelines to maintain a controlled and safe environment for dining-in at restaurants. Those policies were done in alignment with international best practice issued by the WHO (World Health Organisation), as well as the American CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and FDA (Food and Drug Association), Mohammed said.

Mohammed questioned the PM’s decision to restrict in-house dining while allowing public transport and grocery shopping to carry on as normal.

“It is much safer to dine at a restaurant than to take public transportation, for example, where there is no measure of control. Taxis don’t check temperatures, there is no screening before boarding and turnover of passengers is high. Yet they’ve been allowed not only to continue operations, but also increase the number of occupants within a very restricted and enclosed space. Restaurant dining may even be safer than visiting your local grocery or pharmacy as everyone is seated at safely distanced tables, not allowing it is seems quite contradictory,” Mohammed said.

Rezende echoed Mohammed’s call for open dialogue between the ministry and stakeholders in the hospitality sector.

“I think it certainly should be open for discussion as these environments can be controlled. Measures were already implemented subsequent to the first lockdown, which proved to be successful in both keeping our customers and our staff safe. Frequent sanitisation, reconfigured layout of tables to allow for safe distancing, no service unless seated, protective equipment for staff and mandatory masks for customers are just some of the measures that were already in place and were effective.

“These regulations need to be enforced by the relevant authorities, and establishments that fail to abide by them should face penalties such as hefty fines, suspension of licences and/or temporary closure. This will send a strong message to owners who place profits before the safety of the public,” Rezende said.

Learning to function

within the pandemic

While understandably it cannot be “business as usual” Mohammed called for a plan to operate restaurants within the pandemic.

“We have gone well past the phase where only essential establishments operate; Covid will be here for some time, I appeal to our leaders to please reconsider their decision regarding dining-in at restaurants in an effort to protect the already strained industry,” Mohammed said.

Rezende also called on Government to consider the hospitality and entertainment sectors in the planning of the national budget.

“With no understanding or knowledge as to when a vaccine or cure would be available to the public, we as a country need to adapt and develop a plan where all industries can still operate sustainably. Additionally, we hope that the industries most severely impacted by this pandemic: restaurants, bars, cinemas, etc, will be considered in the upcoming budget,” Rezende said.

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