The federal government’s announcement that it is going to waive the one-week waiting period for employment insurance (EI) may help some restaurant employees, but will do little to save Richmond’s Chinese restaurant industry.
That’s the assertion of James Liu, owner of the Marine Bay Restaurant on Alexandra Road, who said Asian eateries are going under at an alarming rate.
In recent weeks, not only have restaurants seen a drop in business, many are closing up shop completely.
At the Empire Centre, an Asian shopping strip mall located close to Aberdeen Station, numerous shops are closed, often citing renovations as the cause.
On the door of Shiang Garden at the Empire Centre — an iconic eatery famous for its traditional dim sum — a notice states that “the restaurant will temporarily close from Feb. 25 to April. 24 due to staff holidays and kitchen renovation constructions.”
Zone 5 Chuan Hotpot, another Chinese grilling restaurant situated in the same building, also has a notice posted stating it has been closed for renovation since Feb. 15.
Liu said that while it’s good employees won’t have to wait a week before getting EI benefits, most employees don’t want to be on EI in the first place; they would rather work.
But they can only work if the restaurants stay open, and that can only happen if they get a tax break from all levels of government.
“Taxes have always been a burden for us; especially now many owners can’t afford the skyrocketing property tax as our businesses are struggling. If the federal government could eliminate some taxes, this could help a business survive longer.”
Earlier this week, the U.K. announced it would temporarily abolish business tax rates for thousands of small retail, leisure and hospitality companies for the year, noting that those industries are being hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is looking at plans to offset the economic impacts of the coronavirus with various measures including tax relief, loan guarantees, reimbursing workers for lost pay, and aid to small and mid-sized businesses.
William Tse, director of the Canada Catering Association, a non-profit organization that represents 200 Chinese restaurants in B.C., said he has been bombarded by phone calls every day.
“Chefs and waitresses are desperate for job opportunities, and owners have told me their businesses can’t continue anymore,” Tse lamented.
“I’ve tried to encourage owners to stick it to the end before giving up, but they break down and ask me how to pay rent and labour costs without making enough profit?”
Tse said he doesn’t have an answer for them.
Last month, Tse organized a press conference with other restaurant representatives as well as MLA Teresa Wat and MP Jenny Kwan. At the meeting, he outlined a number of strategies that could be implemented to revive the industry, but he now concedes they haven’t worked.
“There are no solutions, even offering discounts on specialty dishes couldn’t attract more customers. People are scared of the mysterious virus; we can’t force them to come out,” said Tse.
Many diners are worried that people sitting at a nearby table may have just returned to Canada from a virus-affected hot spot without isolating themselves for 14 days, said Tse.
“But it’s not appropriate for us to ask each client where they’ve come from or how long they have been here as they step into the door,” said Tse. (Although that was one of the original strategies.)
So, establishments continue to lose business, some as much as 60 per cent, said Tse. What’s more, there is no end in sight.
“The owner (of the popular Continental Seafood Restaurant) told me that more than 300 tables had been cancelled this year. This has never happened before. And the number will continue to grow.”
Liu agrees, the hardest part is not knowing when the crisis will end.
“But,” he added, “feeling concerned doesn’t help. We all need to stay strong. Just like the old saying goes: ‘It might be stormy now, but it can’t rain forever.”