‘Surreal’ joy as restaurants and bars reopen in Saskatchewan

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By: Zak Vescera

Grant Frew felt goosebumps move up his forearm as the lunch hour approached.

“Weird,” “surreal,” “wonderful,” and “Christmas in July” were just a few of the words he used to describe Bushwakker Brewpub in Regina opening at full capacity for the first time in 16 months, one of scores across Saskatchewan welcoming back eager crowds as the final COVID-19 health measures ended.

“We knew Phase 3 was coming but I was thinking, okay, what’s the catch?” said Frew, Bushwakker’s bar manager, who has worked at the venue for 30 years.

All restaurants, bars and other such establishments can operate at full capacity, thanks to tumbling COVID-19 caseloads driven down by vaccinations.

In Saskatoon, PiNK Bar and Lounge managing partner Joseph Jackson said people began lining up at 11 p.m. on Saturday, an hour and a minute before restrictions ended. He said the return to the dance floor — closed since March 2020 — was “ceremonial,” and “like homecoming.”

“It was like The Wizard of Oz when the munchkins come out, you know what I mean?” Jackson said with a laugh. “Ding dong, the witch is dead.”

But the end of restrictions is not the end of the pandemic, physically or fiscally. Restaurants spent much of the past year and a half fighting to keep staff on the payroll amid continued limits on seating and hours. Now, the challenge is finding enough employees to meet the demands of a full-scale operation, Frew said.

“Trying to find serving staff and kitchen staff is almost impossible.”

Down the street, Rebellion Brewing President and CEO Mark Heise said the craft taproom was operating with a “skeleton crew” of staff, some of whom are re-learning how to do their old jobs as customers once again fill seats. Until recently, Rebellion was paying to store tables and chairs it couldn’t use. Now those are once again returning.

Businesses interviewed for this story all acknowledged that COVID-19 continues to circulate in Saskatchewan, particularly among the roughly 27 per cent of people ages 12 and up who remain unvaccinated. Many staff continue to wear masks on the job, and operators acknowledged some patrons may do the same when they aren’t eating or drinking.

“In the back of our mind, we’re still leery of what the variants may bring,” Frew said.

The Delta variant, in particular, is believed to spread much more readily than the original strains of COVID-19, including to people who are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated. Saskatchewan’s government has urged people to get fully vaccinated as soon as possible to keep that strain in check. Business owners hope that will happen.

“There’s a really delicate balance to walk when you’re running a business,” Jackson said.

Heise said Rebellion’s taproom tends to attract a “cool” crowd that he thinks will stay responsible, though he makes no judgements about venues erupting into revelry.

“As long as your place of business, your customers, are comfortable and calm and cool, be happy. It’s okay to have a little bit of happiness in our life. Do I think this is all over and done with? No, I don’t think so,” Heise said.

Saskatchewan’s health ministry reported 19 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and 21 recoveries, moving the number of active cases down to 397.

Fifty-seven people were in hospital with COVID-19, including nine in intensive care.

As of Sunday, an additional 5,458 doses of vaccine were given out and 55 per cent of residents aged 12 and older were fully vaccinated.

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