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Note from former clients on a window of a closed restaurant in East Vancouver. Photo: Eduardo Cantú.

One year into COVID-19, hospitality industry still struggling

As other sectors of the economy recover, the hospitality sector is still 319,000 jobs short

By Madina Karabalina and Elizabeth Melimopoulos , in City , on March 19, 2021 Tags: , , , , , ,

Finance, real estate and education have come back to life a year after the pandemic restrictions started in Canada. 

But the hospitality sector continues to be one of the hardest hit with more than 319,000 jobs lost across all provinces amidst lockdown measures.

And business professor Ian Lee says the job losses, which affected youth, women and minorities the most, could have been prevented by instead imposing other measures, including mass mandatory testing. 

“The problem was not with the hospitality sector. The problem was the very poor response by governments federal and provincial in Canada,”  said Lee, an associate professor in strategic management at Carleton University’s school of business.  

“If more targeted and surgical public health policies had been adopted instead of the crude instrument of widespread lockdowns, the impact on youth, women and minorities would have been far less destructive.”

Alberta, Quebec, Manitoba and Ontario were among the hardest-hit provinces, losing nearly one-third of their hospitality jobs in the accommodation and food services sector, which affected hundreds of thousands of workers.

At the peak of the pandemic, Ontario and Quebec —two of Canada’s most populated provinces—  moved into province-wide lockdowns. Ontario issued a stay-at-home order while Quebec introduced a night curfew to curb the spread, with both introducing indoor dining restrictions. 

Alberta declared a state of emergency in late 2020, implementing lockdown-style restrictions, forcing the closure of many businesses while also banning in-person dining and outdoor gatherings.

Separately, Manitoba moved to the red level response system which forbid social gatherings, closing gyms, restaurants, recreational activities and travel.  

According to Lee, instead of imposing massive lockdowns, the government could have acted sooner by implementing measures such as closing the borders earlier, acquiring larger quantities of the vaccine, mass testing from the start, and isolating high-risk institutions. 

The lockdowns and forced closures across the provinces lead to temporary and for some businesses, permanent closures.

Anel Kospenbetova, who is in her early 20s, has been living and working in Ontario for four years, but, when the pandemic struck, her situation changed.

“Everything changed after COVID-19,” Kospenbetova, a food and beverage supervisor at Crowne Plaza Toronto Airport said.

“We closed for 10 months. Finally, after some restrictions were eased [in January], we decided to reopen, but our occupancy hardly reached 15 per cent.”

Youth, women and the impact of COVID-19

Amidst this crisis, young people in Canada continue to be the most affected segment while women have been impacted more severely than men. 

Over 30 per cent of the jobs in tourism are filled by people aged 15 to 24, with the majority of these jobs being performed by women.

According to the latest numbers released by Statistics Canada, employment among those aged 15 to 24 declined by 181,000 in February, falling to its lowest level since August 2020. 

Separately, the number of jobs held by young women fell by 69,000, making them the most affected segment with a total decrease of 17.1 per cent compared to pre-COVID levels. 

But now with the vaccine drive already rolling, authorities have started lifting lockdowns and Canada’s labour market has seen a glimpse of hope with the food and accommodation sector also recovering 65,000 jobs.

However, due to the bankruptcies of many businesses in the hospitality sector, the financial pain is expected to continue even after the restrictions are lifted.

“The financial pain will continue after the lockdowns due to reduced numbers of operating establishments – especially restaurants, bars and other in-person serving establishments,” Carleton’s Lee said. 

A restaurant that was forced to stop operations due to the pandemic. Photo: Eduardo Cantú.