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COVID-19: Virus fears drying up business for local cafes

The Birchwood Coffee Co cafe has lost less than half of its regular number of customers as less people go out because of coronavirus fears. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

Small eateries and cafes in Yellowknife are getting economic jitters as COVID-19 fears and restrictions keep customers away.

Some employers told staff to stay home and customers are heeding warnings about avoiding groups.

The NWT chief health officer urged on Tuesday afternoon that all gatherings of 50 or more people be cancelled except for locations like grocery stores.

Jawah Scott, co-owner of the Birchwood Coffee Ko makes a coffee on Thursday. the same day the cafe announced on Facebook that it would temporarily close on Friday. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

At the Birchwood Coffee Ko cafe, what co-owner Jawah Scott called “crisis mode” began last Friday when sales tanked.

The situation worsened and Birchwood announced on Facebook on Thursday that it would temporarily close on Friday.

"This has become necessary as business has quickly collapsed since last Friday due to the government shutdown, and reduction of people in the downtown area," the cafe said in its post.

“People aren't really going out. Government workers aren't going out, which is a big customer base for us.”

Premier Caroline Cochrane on Monday told MLAs the NWT would receive almost $600,000 out of the federal government's $1 billion COVID response fund.

Scott said they have emailed the GNWT for more details on the federal recovery fund monies but haven't yet received a response.

Downtown cafe Javaroma has lost more than two-thirds of its business. Customer activity really started to drop on Saturday, said co-owner Rami Kassem.

“I can't even cover payroll. In the NWT we're not affected by COVID yet, but we depend on the traffic downtown so if people work from home we don't see the traffic that usually happens. If we have coronavirus in Yellowknife people won't go outside at all. So then what will we do?”

Most small businesses in Yellowknife experience a dip in activity over the March break as families leave the territory and travel.

Kassem said that works “positively and negatively” for his cafe.

“When you have people leaving the North, you have (other) people coming into the North to see their families and the daytime is longer.

“But with coronavirus, with people not going to work, they won't leave their home to go to a coffee shop. We do everything possible to clean and sterilize the cafe. But if even one case is announced people will be scared and maybe the government will shut down bars and restaurants. We pray that it's not going to happen. But everything is possible.”

To keep afloat, Kassem is trying out different options to maintain cash flow, like offering discounts to customers and working out a system of ordering online, with the possibility of shifting to more deliveries as long as customers buy minimum purchases.

“But if those options don't work then we have no choice but to shut down. Maybe first we would revise our hours of operations. But you still have rent and taxes, and we have families and mortgages,” he said.

“I'm working day and night trying to think of new ideas and implementing new ideas. I'm posting new ideas on Facebook. But within a week or 10 days – it's a no brainer. You can't operate like that. You'll be bankrupt.”

Leslie Bromley, owner of Gourmet Cup, said she expected March break to be quiet but the past few days have been unusually quiet.

The longtime cafe owner estimates she has lost half of her customers compared to last week. March break normally slows down activity by about 25 per cent, she said.

On top of fewer customers, her business has been hit by catering orders drying up.

“Everybody is cancelling. Four cancellations in a three-week period is a lot for us. But I understand why they're doing it. We want to contain this virus to the best of our ability. We're doing our best to have a tiny bit of control over it.”

Bromley wasn't sure what to make of the federal government's COVID response fund.

“It might be what we might need to keep the business afloat. I think we might get $13 per person. That's a pittance. What can you do with $13 per person in a four-week period?”

Other independent establishments have announced closures or reductions in hours.

The Woodyard Brewhouse and Eatery posted a notice on its Facebook page on Tuesday that it was closed for the rest of the week and would reassess the decision next Monday.

Many other pubs and bars have also decided to close.

Jawah Scott, co-owner of the Birchwood Coffee Co said her cafe entered a "crisis mode" last Friday when customer numbers dropped. Blair McBride/NNSL photo