B.C. restaurants will soon be able to purchase liquor at wholesale prices and get expedited provincial approval for expanded outdoor liquor service, according to Attorney General David Eby.
Eby said Premier John Horgan has instructed him to move quickly on clearing liquor-related roadblocks for restaurants, which have suffered steep financial losses since in-restaurant dining was banned in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As many as 180,000 of the sector’s 190,000 workers are unemployed and a recent survey stated 70 per cent of restaurants don’t have access to enough capital to pay for supplies, rent and other expenses.
“The premier has just reached out to accelerate work in the ministry to make sure restaurants that want to extend patios don’t face significant delays from the province,” Eby said.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said expanded restaurant seating outdoors is preferable because it is harder to transmit COVID-19 outside. The sector will also have to meet enhanced guidelines for sanitization, hygiene, distance between tables and, in some cases, Plexiglas between booths.
Patio expansions require municipal approval and fees. Several local governments, including the City of Vancouver, have pledged to quickly examine the issue.
Restaurants that want to serve liquor on their patios also require a provincial liquor inspector to visit, examine their plans and sign off on any proposal.
“There are quite a few safeguards in place to ensure a patio is not approved right out front of, for example, a supportive care home, and there are good reasons for these rules to be in place,” Eby said. “However, there’s also’s an understanding of the need to support businesses in real trouble right now, which is why the premier has asked me to accelerate our work on that.”
Restaurants have also renewed longstanding calls to purchase liquor from the province at a discount, like other commercial sectors. Currently, restaurants must buy at the same full retail price as ordinary customers, which contributes to the high price of items such as a bottle of wine on menus. A wholesale discount would cut liquor costs by 20 per cent, the restaurant sector estimates.
“Even before COVID, we were working closely with an advisory panel with industry folks that includes restaurants producers and retailers of alcohol,” Eby said. “One of the key items on the list was the fact they pay the same price as consumers at the till. We were working along on that with my colleagues, but I think COVID and the business impacts on the jobs of 180,000 British Columbians have really accelerated these conversations inside government.”
Restaurant owners are pleased that government is moving on assistance, said Mark von Schellwitz, Restaurants Canada’s western vice-president. Wholesale liquor pricing is consistently the sector’s biggest request of government, he said. “It’s a huge priority for us and it would be extremely well-received if they proceed with that.”
The B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association sent a letter to all municipalities last week, asking for help in cutting through the red tape on new patios. Others have suggested local governments make sidewalks, parking lanes and adjacent public land available for expanded outdoor seating.
The Opposition B.C. Liberals called on the government to permanently allow liquor-primary locations to deliver alcohol with takeout food. The province temporarily granted permission to do so, but it will expire on July 15.
The Liberals also asked the government to create a small business hardship grant that could be accessed by restaurants.