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'‘Don’t make it difficult’: Bowen Island's eateries face burden of enforcing vaccine mandate

Also, pubs had an incredibly busy, record-breaking summer; staffing an eternal issue
Pouring a beer from tap
Come Sept. 13, everyone dining at a restaurant in B.C. will need to be vaccinated.

Bowen Island’s two pubs are asking for understanding from customers as they enforce the provincial vaccine regulations. Come Sept. 13, one will need proof of at least one vaccine dose to eat – inside or outside – at a restaurant in B.C. 

Customers can be ‘vicious’

Enforcing COVID-19 restrictions has already proved challenging – the mask mandate, and the now-lifted restrictions around table size and not getting out of your seat – have been a source of tension with customers.

“People are really quite vicious towards servers and staff if they don’t like the masking thing,” said Oydis Nickle, general manager of Union Steamship Company Marina and Doc Morgan’s Restaurant & Pub. “And then they’re just sitting there venting about it.”

“It’s really tough to deal with it, you just have to take it on the shoulder,” said Nickle.

Glenn Cormier, owner of the Bowen Island Pub said it’s unfortunate the governments have put so much of the burden on operators, especially restaurant operators to manage the rules. 

“We don’t have the staff, necessarily, to have someone standing up at the front door checking vaccine passports and to enforce rules,” said Cormier. “A lot of our frontline people are young and they’re not properly trained to deal with aggressive or abusive behaviour from customers, so it makes it a very, very challenging environment these days.

“We look forward to being able to see a lot of familiar faces again. But they all need to remember that, just because we all know each other and we live in the same community doesn’t excuse them from being part of the vaccine card,” said Cormier. “It’s one thing when you’re tasked with checking the IDs of minors or things like that, but when locals who you’ve been serving for years are stopped at the front door and asked for proof of vaccine – don’t make it difficult. 

“We just need everybody’s help in this one.”

Nickle noted a lack of guidelines a week ahead of the impending mandate. She also said that they’ll need to keep a host on longer than they usually do in the slow season – if people seat themselves in the restaurant, it’s more difficult getting them to leave.

A vaccinated island

This being said, 82 per cent of Bowen Islanders 12 and over are fully vaccinated, according to BC CDC data. This number rises to 86 per cent for people 50 and over. 

The B.I. Pub chose early on to request all of its staff be vaccinated, said Cormier. “We did that with the anticipation that everybody was anxious to get their vaccines and almost everybody was.”

“We lost one staff member, a prominent staff member, over it at the time and it was a very difficult loss for us going into a busy summer,” said Cormier. “But as it’s playing out, it just seems that that was probably the right decision.”

A busy summer staffing

Staffing is no new issue on Bowen. Housing poses a particularly pressing obstacle, and both the Union Steamship Company Marina and the pub have had to create some sort of staff housing. 

Above the pub, Cormier has housing he tries to use as a landing pad for people coming to work for him and then works with them to find other housing on-island. At the marina and Doc’s, they have houseboats and boats in the marina they use to house workers. 

For the past couple of years, Cormier’s been bringing cooks through the temporary foreign worker program – something he says has been quite successful. “The problem we faced was getting their visas processed in time during COVID. That was a big challenge.”

Heading into the summer, the staffing situation was looking as good as Cormier had ever had on Bowen (he took over the old Bowen Island Pub in 2012).

“We dealt with the COVID situation fairly well,” said Cormier. “My staff were anxious to get back to work as soon as there was work available.

“I was very optimistic with my staffing levels, everything was looking really good.”

But then the people came – and more people, and more people. 

July was the Bowen Island Pub’s busiest month on record. Liquor sales continue to be down from what they were pre-COVID (no band nights, no late-night drinking) but food sales are up dramatically, said Cormier. Food isn’t as profitable as liquor and requires more staff, which is where they ran into problems. Instead of making it through the mid-week days with a smaller staff, they needed everyone all of the time. 

Doc Morgan’s and the marina both saw sales up considerably over 2019, said Nickle (2020 isn’t a good comparison). Union Steamship is up about 10 per cent – that’s without the U.S.  boaters for much of the summer. Doc’s was up 40 per cent, also seeing an influx on the food side of the business rather than alcohol. “It’s been a busy summer – nonstop,” said Nickle, adding that there has been a lot of encountering frustrated people. “And they take it out on you.”

(An interesting side note here is that BC Ferries statistics show 1,200 fewer passengers coming from Horseshoe Bay to Bowen Island in July 2021 over July 2019. Tourism Bowen Island’s visitor stats are down from pre-COVID, according to TBI’s administrator Jody Lorenz – who noted, however, that a lot of visitors to Bowen are friends and family of residents. Catching Stars Gallery below the pub noted an uptick in off-island visitors over 2019.)

Closed a day

Doc’s was short on staff in the kitchen by one or two people, said Nickle, so that part of the business has been closed on Wednesdays (they’re set to go back up to seven days a week on Sept. 15).

While the pub held on through July, in August, the university students who make up much of the summer staff start to leave (a perennial problem for the marina and Doc’s as well). 

So, for August, and at least the beginning of September, the Bowen Island Pub was closed on Tuesdays. The decision to close on Tuesdays wasn’t an easy one – several island restaurants are closed Tuesdays and Cormier hears the phone ring for takeout at the pub. “I do hear from my customers that they just can’t get anything on some days. And it must be very challenging.” But the restaurants are all in the same boat. “We all suffer from which day should we close, if we close.” Food orders are placed on Wednesdays and arrive on Mondays and Thursdays, which leaves Tuesday. 

“We didn’t expect it to be as good a summer as it was,” said Cormier. “It’s difficult to complain – it was a great summer.”

The future

Cormier is staying optimistic about the staffing challenges. He just dropped his own daughter off at university in Calgary. Driving across the province, he saw the same story. “Whether it’s restaurants, cafes, retail, everywhere you go, there’s window signs saying ‘Help Wanted,” he said. “So the problems that we face here on Bowen are not unique.”

“COVID if anything has highlighted a lot of challenges that we faced even pre COVID,” he said, and pointed to some of the government responses introduced to try to help restaurants struggling with razor thin bottom lines, survive.

“The big challenge that the industry faces now is making sure that people can afford to work where they live,” said Cormier. 

On the island that lost few, if any of its eateries, Cormier sees economic hope. “There’s more than enough business on this island for us all to be not only able to survive, but to thrive. It’s there. It’s just a matter of staffing issues and things like that.”