When COVID-19 cases began spreading nationwide last year, Umi Sushi Express owner Daniel Der did not think Saskatoon would be affected. Now, the campus location of the restaurant has been shut down along with other businesses in Lower Place Riel.
Der, who opened Umi Sushi in 2012, says that despite the business’ closure in March, they have been preparing to reopen and are awaiting updates from the University of Saskatchewan administration.
“We’re surviving for sure,” Der said. “We don’t have any form of business or any form of operation at this moment.”
Der has visited the campus a few times to check on the store. He says seeing an empty campus is “definitely a change.”
“It’s something I never expected would ever happen,” Der said.
“It’s quite sad seeing the university so empty and the Place Riel food court [has] no chairs and tables — it’s kind of cleared off and taped off, so you can’t actually sit anywhere.”
During the initial campus closure in March 2020, many businesses in the city were ordered to shut down. The initial closure period was meant to be temporary, but it extended as the provincial case count increased. Some businesses were allowed to reopen and operate at low capacity, while others had to remain closed.
Campus Vision, which had only opened six months before the closure in March 2020, is currently offering in-person services.
Liz Bougie, the manager of Campus Vision, says that though their operations did not halt completely, they have been reduced significantly.
“There’s virtually nobody on campus, and we rely heavily on foot traffic so there isn’t that anymore,” Bougie said. “We’ve cut back hours to make it a little bit more manageable for us.”
Campus Vision reopened in July, and even then with strict measures like COVID-19 screening through a QR code and serving one or two people at a time.
Bougie says students are often “shocked” when they see the university now, a year later, and that they are still patient with the new measures.
“They are very compliant with all the safety measures and very understanding of the extra time it takes as well,” Bougie said.
Campus Vision being able to offer more one-on-one service lately is also something students can appreciate, she says. As for staffing, Bougie says Campus Vision has been fortunate enough to keep their staff and ensure that proper cleaning is maintained.
On the other hand, Der says all of Umi Sushi’s staff were granted a leave of absence. They also helped their employees with CERB and EI benefits and finding other work, he says.
Der also owns Ko Chicken + Ramen, a standalone restaurant in Preston Avenue South that opened in May 2019. Early on in the pandemic, Der closed Ko for two months, but was eventually able to bring some staff from Umi Sushi to Ko, where they remain today.
Both Der and Bougie say the U of S Students’ Union’s rent reduction in April was helpful. For Der, the reduced rent meant that he can continue to afford Umi Sushi’s expenses. The USSU stopped charging rent altogether in May 2020, which is ongoing for the businesses that are still closed due to COVID-19.
For Bougie, it meant reduced expenses going into Campus Vision’s reopening in July 2020.
Although there may be a long way to go before campus officially opens, Der and Bougie say their businesses are eager to welcome students again.
Bougie says that the six months before lockdown were “really good” for the business and that Campus Vision can’t wait to get back to that point.
“We’re really hoping in the near future, that will be possible again and that we are able to see the friendly faces on campus again,” Bougie said.
Meanwhile, Der has been focusing his efforts on the Ko Chicken + Ramen restaurant.
“It allowed me to focus my energy and my time on ensuring that I can keep the other business afloat, Der said.
“I hope that the university can get back to a more normal state and have students come back in, have the businesses reopen and revitalize the university.”
Fiza Baloch | Staff Writer
Photo: Nicholas Saretzky | Contributing Photojournalist