The president of Nova Scotia's restaurant association expects the province to see hundreds of restaurant closures if COVID-19 cases continue rising and more restrictions are introduced.
"We thought we had the perfect storm, then, of course, there's another day [that] comes along and there's a storm that's even bigger and harder on the restaurant economy," Gordon Stewart said. "I think it's probably the toughest it's been since the beginning of COVID. We have not seen so many problems all at once hit the restaurant sector."
As Omicron cases continue to surge, Stewart told CityNews Halifax many restaurants have been forced to shut down and lose revenue.
He said the loss of revenue in December 2021 was "enormous" for restaurants and likely in the "mega-millions of dollars."
That revenue was meant to help restaurants stay afloat in the first few months of 2022 as business traditionally drops after the holidays.
Moreover, an existing staffing shortage — along with some staff having to take time off work due to potentially contracting Omicron — has been difficult for restaurants.
However, he said the biggest issue has been the repercussions of the government cutting dine-in capacity limits amid rising case numbers.
"It just stopped the consumer marketplace; it's dead in some areas of the province," he said. "Halifax would be a good example where [it's] extremely slow — we've never seen it so slow, ever.
"This hill is a very steep hill for restaurants to climb, and we suspect we'll lose hundreds of restaurants across Nova Scotia."
He said smaller restaurants, such as mom-and-pop shops in smaller neighbourhoods, have a higher chance of surviving the impacts.
However, he added that restaurants in cities that are locked into long-term leases with high costs of rent are probably in trouble as landlords likely won't reduce their rent.
"It's going to change drastically," he said. "All you have to do is look [at] what's happened to the airline industry. Flights are dropping like dead flies. It's such a dramatic change. Our whole industry — the restaurant, food and beverage sector — will change dramatically, and I mean dramatically, over the next couple of years."
Some local restaurants have already closed up following an increase in COVID-19 cases.
In December, Robie Street's The Coastal Cafe shut down after more than 14 years of business.
While Stewart said he realizes Nova Scotia has seen more than 170 new businesses open in 2021, he said he believes a lot of new business owners don't realize the difficulty of running a business.
On Dec. 17, the province announced a new Sector Impact Support Program that offered businesses impacted by rising COVID-19 cases a one-time grant of up to $7,500.
Stewart said it was a nice response after many businesses asked for support, but that it's not a long-term solution.
"It's not enough to keep them going," he said. "You can only float for so long. At some point, you've got to be able to swim or get on dry land, and that kind of piece of real estate is a long way away. We're looking now at two-and-a-half to three years for some type of normal recovery.
"That's if everything goes well."
Now, Stewart said a lot of the challenge lies in recovery but also in tweaking business operations. That includes changing aspects such as menu sizes, frequency of ordering inventory and managing staff.
"Restaurants have been virtually brutalized," he said. "Many sectors have been hurt, but the restaurant sector has been brutalized — it just takes one hit after another."