Shaunt Tchakmak is tired after starting what he calls his “ultimate test”: a new business venture during the first wave of the pandemic. Keeping the music playing and the taps flowing at The Oud & the Fuzz has been a challenge wrought with uncertainty. COVID-19 restrictions that are seemingly always in flux have not made things easier.
“Having to reinvent your business time and time again is exhausting,” says Tchakmak, who opened his bar in Toronto, Ontario, in June 2020.
Nov. 15 was supposed to mark the day when places like wedding reception halls and nightclubs welcomed full-capacity crowds back to their businesses. But for The Oud & the Fuzz, those plans are now on hold.
Earlier in the fall, the Ontario government lifted capacity limits on a majority of places where proof of vaccination was required like restaurants and indoor sports facilities.
The easing of restrictions in higher-risk settings like event venues, dancing halls, strip clubs, bathhouses and sex clubs was supposed to follow but has now been shelved amid another spike in COVID-19 cases.
“It’s been quite a challenge for us to stay up to date on the rules as they apply to different sectors of the economy, and interpret them for membership,” Brian Burchell, the chair of the Bloor-Annex Business Improvement Area (BIA), says.
BIAs exists to maintain and promote the business community, and Burchell’s been involved with the Bloor-Annex association for 26 years.
According to him, 67 per cent of the businesses in the area are restaurants and bars, but the eclectic mix also includes music venues and a theatre. The most frequent complaint Burchell has heard is that the rules around COVID-19 restrictions “aren’t consistent, or intuitive.”
But while Burchell recognizes the current COVID-19 restrictions for businesses are “cumbersome,” he thinks measures like the vaccine passport system for entering certain establishments are necessary.
“Broadly speaking, I think the vaccine passport has been an effective way of ensuring safer indoor environments for people to dine in,” even if some “retail and many essential businesses are exempt,” he says.
Significant financial challenge
According to a survey hosted on the Angus Reid Forum on behalf of Restaurants Canada, 32 per cent of Canadians are still tentative about eating in-person and plan to postpone their first in-person dining experience until at least a few months after reopening.
The survey noted that this presents a significant challenge for the restaurant industry because businesses won’t be able to maximize in-person dining revenues with fewer patrons.
Measures such as masking and physical distancing requirements, personal and structural protective equipment along with capacity limits and vaccine exemption passports are “understandable from the perspective of keeping people safe, but they’re financially quite burdensome,” Burchell says.
Tchakmak argues that current public health measures put undue hardship on business owners and their staff. He believes the government needs to take more responsibility managing the pandemic.
“I think for the government to ask businesses to accept responsibility like that is absolutely ridiculous,” he says.
“If it’s something that’s necessary to implement from a health perspective, then the government should be responsible for making sure that there’s somebody there to check these things.”
Tchakmak added that “business owners and staff were put in the position of babysitters and that’s not what they’re paid to do.”
Many small business owners have complained that the rules in place for their businesses are inconsistent with those for big box stores and they say the rules unfairly advantage larger corporations.
“Every single decision was disproportionately affecting small businesses. That definitely had a negative impact on our bottom line,” Tchakmak says.
Complaints and compliance
Since proof of vaccination became a requirement to enter non-essential businesses in Ontario on Sept. 22, the City of Toronto’s COVID-19 compliance hotline received 1,089 complaints about businesses not complying with the proof of vaccination policy, as of Nov. 20.
However, complaints made by business owners about pandemic restrictions aren’t formally tracked by the City (nor seemingly any level of government).
Staff from Toronto Public Health and Municipal Licensing and Standards have conducted 1,336 inspections to ensure businesses follow the Reopening Ontario Act requirements. The City has issued five warning letters regarding proof of vaccination requirements but hasn’t issued any charges.
While Tchakmak checks vaccine passports of customers, he doesn’t demand his staff get vaccinated, as it’s not required by law for his establishment.
“I don’t get involved in their personal lives. I’m not going to ask them about their medical decisions, because it’s a personal choice,” he says. He does not feel it’s a health concern because all his employees are masked at all times and follow physical distancing and sanitation procedures.
As a business that opened after March 2020, The Oud and the Fuzz didn’t qualify for many of the financial programs the federal government made available for businesses and individuals during the pandemic.
Tchakmak says the only support they received was a one-time forgivable loan of $20,000 from the Ontario government.
But despite the difficulties he’s faced, Tchakmak is thankful for the support and understanding his customers have shown him.
“They approach and interact with us in a way that’s trying to make our lives easier, whether or not they agree with [the vaccine passport system]. They don’t want to have to take that out on us,” he says.
“There’s kind of a mutual understanding — like, let’s just get through this and put up with it in order to enjoy each other’s company and get down to why we’re meeting in the space to begin with.”
Tchakmak is proud of what he and his brother have accomplished despite the COVID-19 challenges.
He says he recognizes the important role that small businesses can play in the lives of their customers when it comes to their mental well-being and stability, and hopes the pandemic will help governments acknowledge that.
“Having someone know your name, look you in the face, smile, and ask you how you’re doing are things that truly are keeping people sane during one of the most difficult times that we’ve experienced,” he says.
This article was written as part of the ‘NCM – Village Media Advanced Training and Mentorship for Immigrant Journalists’ special project.
Marcus is a poet, editor and freelance journalist based in Toronto. He currently works with New Canadian Media as an Editor and as a Freelance Writer for ByBlacks.com, The Edge: A Leader's Magazine and The Soapbox Press.