Restaurants, travel agencies still optimistic despite new COVID variant

“We are in a very different place from last year and we are cautiously optimistic that we can get this done without another lockdown or capacity reduction.”

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Omicron may have stormed into their holiday plans as a poor farmer, but Ottawa restaurateurs say Christmas 2021 still looks merrier than the last.

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“We’re very happy with what we can do now compared to a year ago,” said restaurant owner Stephen Beckta. “We can serve so many more people indoors. People are so much more comfortable. And we feel safe – both for our staff and our guests – because everyone has to present a vaccination certificate to dine with us.”

Beckta says he’s had a few small parties canceling reservations at his three restaurants – Beckta, Play and Cozy – but most customers are happy with the precautions being taken. Still limiting capacity, Beckta places tables further apart than pre-pandemic levels and at its flagship restaurant, Elgin Street, there are nine separate dining rooms to provide a more private experience.

“We are in a very different place from last year and we are cautiously optimistic that we can get this done without another lockdown or capacity reduction.”

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Unknown just a week ago, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has medical experts racing to assess its impact, while Canada and other countries are imposing travel bans to limit its spread. The first cases of the variant in Canada were discovered in Ottawa, but so far the city’s health official, Dr. Vera Etches, that there are no plans to tighten restrictions for the Christmas holidays.

“At this point, I see no need for additional public health measures,” Etches said at the Ottawa Board of Health meeting Monday. “In Ottawa, we now have a fairly stable level of COVID in our community. We look at it every day and if there’s any sign of an increase in the number of COVID cases, we’ll let people know if the picture changes.”

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But caution is still warranted, she said, especially because most children won’t be fully vaccinated before Christmas and because of the unknown impact of the Omicron variant.

“It’s not quite a normal holiday season yet… but social gatherings are an important part of our lives and well-being and we have the protection of the vaccines and these other measures that slow the transmission of COVID,” Etches said.

“My message is the same as last week, before we knew about Omicron. Do a risk assessment when you go through your vacation plan and choose the activity with a lower risk. It starts with making sure you’re vaccinated, and making sure you get a booster dose if you’re over 70 or in one of the other groups eligible for booster doses. It means choosing smaller gatherings and asking if they can be outside or in well-ventilated areas.”

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Bar Robo owner Scott May says it’s far too early to say what effect the Omicron variant will have. And he fears that media reports about this will unjustifiably fuel fears just as the industry bounces back. Bar Robo’s revenue — a 400-seat concert venue and dining hall for the downtown audience — fell 97 percent last year. May has made a turn to offer smaller, more frequent shows in response to the pandemic, and revenues are slowly coming back. He had sold nearly 100 tickets to Wednesday night’s live jazz performance.

Bar Robo Owner Scott May Has Turned Around To Offer Smaller, More Frequent Shows In Response To The Pandemic, Saying Revenues Are Slowly Coming Back,
Bar Robo owner Scott May has turned to offer smaller, more frequent shows in response to the pandemic, saying revenues are slowly coming back, “but it’s nowhere near a level we can maintain.” Photo by Tony Caldwell /post media

“It’s come back a little bit — we may have only fallen 80 percent this year — but it’s nowhere near a level we can sustain,” he said. “People are willing to come to shows because they realize they have been vaccinated and everyone else in the bar or restaurant has been vaccinated. But this cold water the media is throwing at Omicron is way over the top. It is not convenient.”

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May has booked several corporate events at his club for the holiday season “and I haven’t heard from any of the organizers chatter about canceling or delaying them.”

However, travel agents are answering calls from those who have booked vacations for the March break due to concerns about Omicron.

But these concerns seem to vary by destination, with those who have booked vaccinations to the Caribbean appearing less concerned, according to Richard Smart, CEO of Ontario’s Travel Industry Council.

“There is a huge pent-up demand for travel,” said travel consultant Sheila Gallant-Halloran, owner of boutique travel agency Lush Life Travel.

Some holiday trips to Germany and Austria, which focused on visiting Christmas markets, had already been canceled due to lockdowns before Omicron became a concern. But customers have already rebooked for next Christmas, she said. Other clients who have considered going on safari in Africa have put their plans on hold.

But she hasn’t seen much hesitation in traveling to Mexico or the Caribbean for a sun vacation.

“There’s still an appetite to lay down on a beach.”

With files by Joanne Laucius

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