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COVID-19 Bars, nightclubs alter their business models to stay afloat. Dr. Bonnie Henry tightened rules for bars and restaurants last week, so patrons must sit at a table, and there is no liquor self service or dancing.

Friday and Saturday nights at the Hotel Belmont’s lounge and nightclub venues look a lot different than they did a few months ago.

Instead of people packed in shoulder-to-shoulder, drinking cocktails and dancing to music, the focus is now squarely on food, with parties of no more than six people sitting down for meals at sanitized tables that are spaced well apart and served by masked staff.

“When we shut down in March due to COVID-19, we really started putting a plan in place right away, knowing that when we reopened that there would be further restrictions and that we weren’t going to be able to pack the room the way we used to,” said Don Falconer, Hotel Belmont’s general manger of food and beverage.

Although many bars and nightclubs remain closed, those that have opened have had to make changes, ranging from operating on a reservation-only basis with table service to major pivots like what happened at The Living Room and The Basement at Hotel Belmont, in order to comply with provincial health-and-safety rules while staying viable.

In late June, Hotel Belmont was the subject of a public alert from Vancouver Coastal Health after patrons who went to the bar and nightclub tested positive for COVID-19. Falconer said staff members who were working isolated for two weeks, but no one became ill.

“It reinforced what we were already doing. I think that because we were following all of the regulations already when we had that exposure event, that we were lucky that it didn’t turn into something more,” he said.

Don Falconer of the Hotel Belmont poses for a photo in The Living Room, a lounge that has been converted into a food-business. RICHARD LAM/PNG
Last week, after seeing an increasing number of positive COVID-19 test results, particularly among younger people, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry tightened the rules for bars and restaurants, so that patrons must sit at a table — they cannot stand — and there is no liquor self service and no dancing. Inspections will be more frequent and events must end by 11 p.m.

The idea is to reduce lineups, gathering and pressure points. Some venues had already implemented similar rules.

“We are at the point where we need to make some changes. What we were finding was that people were allowed to stand at tables rather than sit, and then of course after having a few drinks people felt that they could mingle more freely,” Henry told reporters on Wednesday.

Jeff Guignard, executive director of the Alliance of Beverage Licensees, said the industry is happy to do its part to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, he estimates that more than half of pubs, nightclubs and bars remain closed because they’ve been unable to make the changes that were already mandated. Smaller venues, particularly those that already had kitchens, have been able to pivot more easily.

“It is safe to go out to nightclubs again,” Guignard said. “The smaller nightclubs are more like lounges now — they’ve shut down dance floors with tables and planters and whatnot. Some of them are starting to serve food, others are just trying to play music and be a place to relax. Think more of a VIP experience.”

Studio Nightclub, for instance, started out allowing people to stand, socialize and dance within their own group of six or less, but now it provides assigned seating and customers must remain in their seats unless they are using washrooms or leaving.

Guignard said while he hopes small changes might be possible, such as a slight increase in the number of people allowed in a seated group, he expects restrictions to remain in place for the foreseeable future and businesses will have to make decisions accordingly.

Falconer agreed.

“Nightclubs and the whole late-night party scene is not something that is sustainable right now for business,” he said. “So, if people don’t pivot and change their business models you’re just going to see more and more closures.”

— with a file from David Carrigg