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Restaurants in Quebec will be able to reopen Monday for the first time in more than a month, but some former workers say they won’t be looking for new jobs in the industry.

Milovan Danielou said she decided to start looking for a new job during the province’s second restaurant dining room closure in the fall of 2020, when her then-employer, Grumman ’78 Taco Restaurant, closed its main location permanently.

With the soup kitchens closed and no tourists in town, there was little work for everyone. “Everyone was struggling to find even part-time jobs,” he said in a recent interview.

Danielou, who now enters data, said her new job is less exciting, but the $30-an-hour pay is better and she’s not worried about losing her job if the COVID-19 situation worsens.

“Nothing compares to working in a restaurant, the rush, the drive, the energy, the team, the people you meet. Nothing compares to that,” he said. But it’s not enough to push him back. “You have to pay the rent, you have to survive.”

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Quebec restaurant dining rooms have been ordered closed effective Dec. 30 as the number of COVID-19 cases in the province soared. Under the new rules, restaurants will be allowed to open Monday at 50 percent capacity and there will be limits on how many people from different households can share a table.

Liam Thomas, 32, said that while he decided to leave the industry last summer when restaurants were open, it was not a choice he would have made had he not lived through two closures.

“I got yelled at for the millionth time in my cooking career and I just walked out and never came back,” Thomas, a former line cook, said in a recent interview. “It was precipitated by lockdowns and the knowledge that it could happen again, and job instability.”

Thomas, who said he started working in restaurants at age 18, now works as a transportation attendant at a Montreal hospital, helping patients get to X-rays and other appointments within the hospital.

While Thomas said he still misses the hustle and bustle of the kitchen sometimes, his new job is less stressful, better paid and offers more vacation time.

“The issues that the pandemic exposed have always been there for restaurant workers,” said Kaitlin Doucette of the Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition, a group that advocates for better working conditions in the industry. He said workers have long lacked health benefits and paid sick days, and the precarious nature of work in the industry can lead to sexual abuse and harassment.

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One of the biggest challenges of the last shutdown in Quebec, Doucette said in a recent interview, is that workers were only eligible for $300 a week in federal aid.

Montrealer Michele Martel, who worked in bars for 25 years, said she started looking for a new job because it wasn’t enough to live on.

“I had no choice. With the amount of money they are giving us, my savings would have disappeared for the third time. It’s hard to save money, and when the closings come, the money is gone,” he said. “And it’s not just financial, I also need to work on my morale, to see people.”

When bars and restaurants reopened for a second time in June 2021, Martel said he was confident it would last: Most Quebecers were vaccinated and businesses had followed public health orders.

But this third closure has left her fearful that it could happen again. While Martel said she plans to look for work as a waitress, she also intends to continue working at her new job, at a nursing home, part-time.

Martin Juneau, owner of Pastaga, a restaurant in Montreal’s Little Italy neighborhood, said he is worried about finding staff for a reopening that he says feels more like opening for the first time.

“We had a lot of employees who eventually moved on, who wanted to go in a different direction, in a different industry,” he said in a recent interview.

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While Juneau said she closed her dining room before the provincial government ordered her to, she worries she may have to do it again. “We’re scared for next fall, and we’re scared that we won’t have the energy to make it to next fall,” she said.

He was forced to close a few other businesses, including a restaurant and wine shop, a corner grocery store and an ice cream parlor, early in the pandemic, and said they won’t be coming back. “We are the exact opposite of expanding,” Juneau said.

Benoit Dessureault, owner of Chez Delmo in Old Montreal, said he was able to keep paying longtime employees with the help of a food truck. While some of his workers were laid off, he said he found projects to hire them to work during the closures.

Still, he said the reopening means the restaurant, which had drawn a lunchtime crowd of lawyers and businessmen, now plans to focus more on dinner.

“The office towers are still empty, so we can’t maintain the same business proposition that we had before,” Dessureault said in an interview.

Dessureault said he hopes customers will be more patient and understanding when they return to restaurants that are still facing strict public health rules.

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© 2022 The Canadian Press

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