Alberta food court operators call on province to remove closures and allow indoor dining
Food court operators in Alberta say they are being unfairly targeted after the province ordered their businesses to ban all indoor dining.
The original plan announced on Friday from the UCP government was to allow all eateries to use the Restrictions Exemption Program and require proof of vaccination for all customers, but that messaging changed over the weekend.
“We feel that food courts were singled out in the province by removing the seating on very short notice, as early as Saturday morning in some places,” said co-founder of 98 Food Co., Jason Cunningham.
“All the national landlords were preparing to have security checks for vaccine proof.”
Cunningham operates a wide variety of food outlets in Calgary and says it makes no sense for the province to allow customers to dine in at restaurants, while at the same time closing food courts.
“We don't think they're very social environments like a late-night restaurant, there's no alcohol served at our establishments,” he said.
“There are socially-distanced tables and chairs often fixed to the floor. People visit the food court for 15 or 20 minutes as food on the go, yet you can go to a white tablecloth dining room and sit there for five hours if you like -- we don't think that's fair at all.”
Takeout service is still allowed for food court operators, but Cunningham says sales could be impacted by as much as 80 per cent as work from home orders are implemented.
He added that rents for food court operators are amongst the highest per square foot than any other food service in the province.
“Don't penalize them at all, open up food courts so not only the small businesses can manage better, but it gives lower income families an equal opportunity to go out and dine as well.”
B.C. FOOD COURTS REMAIN OPEN
No dates have been given by the Alberta Government as to when food courts could re-open, but other provinces like British Columbia have opted to keep food courts open.
In B.C., food courts are not only allowed to stay open, but also considered safer because they are considered takeout services and therefore exempted from requiring proof of vaccination.
General Manager of CF Market Mall, Darren Milne said his mall was prepared to implement the Restrictions Exemption Program, which would see attendants request proof of vaccination at both of the food courts entrances.
Milne said that option has been rejected and has since made it more difficult to control crowding at the mall.
“People just find other places in the mall to go eat and so we're finding people eating in back hallways or in stairwells or on the floor,” he said.
“When that happens we can't control the number of people who are together, we can't control the garbage and we can't control the sanitization of the tables or the areas of eating, so we think it's really important for food court seating to be open.”
'WE’RE HUGELY IMPACTED': CALGARY FARMERS’ MARKET
The Calgary Farmers’ Market South has also been impacted by the move as it was forced to remove all 60 of its tables in its food hall, which could hold up to 250 people at any given time.
Brittany Fitzgerald is the facility’s marketing and operations coordinator and says 25 family businesses are now seeing a huge reduction in sales.
“A food court is specifically for fast food and our food hall is all for family run businesses just like any restaurant,” she said.
“In the past, we've had to work with previous government regulations, we've had our tables spaced out six feet apart, and we've always followed all health protocols so this doesn’t make sense.”
Phil Faba, who owns the Stock and Sauce Company within the farmers' market, noted that his livelihood is dependent on customers coming in and dining in person.
“There is no traffic over here, there are businesses directly near the food hall and feeling it, so we have a down profit right now of about 30 to 50 per cent every time we shut down,” Faba said.
“We’re being penalized just for the situation that we're in, but if I owned my own restaurant, I'd have the same ability as every other restaurant to serve customers dine-in service.”
PROVINCE RESPONDS TO FOOD COURT OPERATORS
CTV News contacted Alberta Health for an explanation on why food courts and food halls were closed, while dine-in service for restaurants remained open under the Restrictions Exemption Program.
The following response from Tom McMillan, Alberta Health assistant director of communications did not specify why food courts were singled out.
“Indoor dining, including food courts, was closed as these settings are places where individuals are removing masks and in close contact for a long duration of time,” McMillan’s statement read.
“At this time, food courts are open to takeout only. They remain closed for in-person dining due to the open-access nature of mall food courts and typically the lack of attendants who can ensure public health measures and other requirements are followed.”
“We appreciate businesses and patrons’ patience as we continue to respond to COVID-19 and adjust our approach in Alberta if and as needed to protect the health care system and bend down the curve once again.”