Despite Omicron-fueled anxieties, Ottawa restaurants to ring out 2021 with modest New Year’s Eve dinners

At Ristorante Marzitelli on Elgin Street, whoever shows up for New Year’s Eve Friday night and sticks it out till the end will indulge in a bit of make-believe

Of course, no one can imagine away the pandemic’s latest surge. But after their five-course meal and entertainment by a band, Marzitelli’s revellers will be able to say goodbye to 2021, an hour early, with the fanfare usually reserved for midnight.

“W e’re going to pretend,” says proprietor Christopher Marzitelli. “At five to 11, we’ll do a countdown and that will be that.”

That gesture and others like it around town will end a night out reduced in size and length and fraught with uncertainties. At least Ottawa’s second COVID-19 New Year’s Eve will allow its partiers to enjoy some kind of low-key, double- or triple-vaccinated evening out if they wish, rather than enforcing sheltering in place as was done a year ago.

Still, the recent, sudden rise of the Omicron variant has crushed the prospects of restaurants and bars making anything like their usual New Year’s Eve windfalls before the lean months of January and February challenge them.

On Dec. 19, by provincial order, those businesses went from full capacity to half and were ordered to institute 10 p.m. last calls and 11 p.m. closings. Meanwhile, public concerns about Omicron’s extreme transmissibility are prompting cautious customers to stay home so that dining rooms are far from even half-full, restaurateurs say.

“People aren’t coming anyways. They’re just not,” says Marzitelli. He recalls that right after the province’s latest restrictions were announced, his restaurant’s business plummeted from its usual 70 or 80 on a Friday night to 13.

“We were devastated even before the restrictions went in,” Marzitelli says.

Because of Omicron-induced hardships, Oz Balpinar, owner of Oz Kafe in the ByWard Market, discussed keeping her restaurant closed this week with her top brass, she says.

Oz Kafe shut last week after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19, losing revenues from a Boxing Day when more than 50 seats had been reserved, says Balpinar. The restaurant re-opened Wednesday after all staff had been tested and were found to be healthy.

Similarly, on New Year’s Eve, Beckta Dining & Wine on Elgin Street will re-open after taking a pandemic-related hiatus of more than a week, owner Stephen Beckta says. A a Dec. 20 post on the fine-dining restaurant’s Instagram account said the closure was needed because some restaurant staff were exposed to COVID-19 and deemed high risk.

Balpinar says her team at Oz decided to go ahead and re-open because “our staff really wanted to get back to work,” especially with the possibility of further Omicron-related restrictions in the wings.

Marzitelli, Balpinar and other restaurateurs say their New Year’s Eve reservation numbers have fluctuated non-stop, with cancellations and additions coming and going.

Marzitelli says his 7 p.m. seating currently has about 50 reservations for tables of two and four, down from a high of 70 but up from a low of 30.

“We’re getting reasons from ‘I have to isolate,’ to ‘We don’t feel comfortable,’” he says, explaining the cancellations.

Whereas Oz Kafe might feed as many as 200 people over several seatings during a pre-Pandemic New Year’s Eve, it will be lucky to attract 75 customers on Friday night, Balpinar says.

Beckta says his namesake restaurant and other businesses Gezellig and Play were previously sold out for New Year’s Eve, but cancellations have left some tables free at Gezellig and Play. 

In Kanata North, veteran restaurateurs Megan Bray and Selo Kahriman hope for 25 customers will take in the three-course New Year’s Eve dinner at their month-old restaurant ViaMarzo Kitchen & Wine.

“ We opened just as they were allowing full capacity in restaurants,” says Bray, who with her husband Kahriman operated Cyranos Restaurant in Bells Corners for 20 years before selling it this summer. “We were excited that things would be good. Up until the last announcement, people were feeling pretty good.”

The latest situation is so dire that Marzitelli says “ a lockdown would make sense.”

“At least I’d have help for staff and for the rent,” says Marzitelli, referring to government support programs that would be available.

“They’re leaving us in the wind,” Marzitelli says. “I think the government’s saying, ‘Hey, you’re on your own.’”

Balpinar agrees.

“ I really do feel the government is dropping the ball on businesses,” she says. “As soon as they say, ‘We have to close you down,’ they have to pay you. It’s like a waiting game.”

Last week, the federal government expanded eligibility for businesses that will be able to apply for Local Lockdown Program support. Businesses can now tap into federal wage and rent subsidies if they are required to operate at capacity levels of 50 per cent or less.

Also last week in response to the Omicron variant, the provincial government introduced the Ontario Business Costs Rebate Program, offering restaurants, small retailers, gyms and other other eligible businesses 50 per cent rebates on property taxes and energy costs incurred under current capacity limits.

phum@postmedia.com

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