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Victoria mayor says city prepares to create open spaces for restaurant recovery


VICTORIA — The recipe for a successful restaurant recovery during the COVID-19 pandemic could involve adding outdoor patios, parking lots, sidewalks and even streets to allow for physical distancing, says Victoria's mayor.

Customers are expected to return to British Columbia's restaurants as pandemic restrictions lift this month and Mayor Lisa Helps says the city wants to lend some support by spicing up the downtown core.

Restaurants in B.C. have been limited to take-out and delivery service since March.

Flexible COVID-19 recovery plans will be debated by Victoria council this week to allow open-air dining experiences in an environment of safe physical distancing for customers and employees, Helps said.

The city is poised to give restaurants, pubs and retailers more space to reopen with a plan that could expand retail or restaurant space to sidewalks, parking lots and streets that have been closed to traffic.

"What I'd like to see is as restaurants and retailers are making their reopening plans, they have the knowledge that they'll be able to expand their operations, and in some cases right into public space," Helps said in an interview.

The issue will go before council on Thursday.

"What's going to be most important is this can't be a giant bureaucratic process where we take six months to make decisions and six months to implement them," Helps said. "We have to approach the recovery with the same agility and flexibility that we approached the pandemic."

"We shut city hall and recreation centres down within days because we needed to and the recovery needs the same can-do spirit," she said.

Ian Tostenson, president of the B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association, said struggling restaurants need immediate help getting back in operation and expanding into public spaces would provide more room to serve customers safely.

"We have maybe three months of summer," he said. "It's how do we work together, all levels of government and industry and businesses to make something happen that's spectacular."

The restaurant association and representatives from B.C.'s wine, liquor and craft brew industries sent a letter to local governments last week asking for creative efforts to expand patio areas to help businesses survive.

"The majority of B.C.'s restaurants, bars, and tasting lounges have closed, laid off staff, and are facing bankruptcy and financial collapse," said the letter. "We ask you to support our industry with fast, flexible, and nimble permitting and business services to help our industry get back up and running."

Restaurants Canada, a not-for-profit industry association, said a recent survey of members found seven out of 10 owners feared they won't have enough money to pay their expenses over the next three months.

Tostenson noted the B.C. government took less than three days to change regulations to allow restaurants to make liquor sales part of the take-out and delivery services offered during the pandemic.

"It can be done," he said. "It's the will."

The B.C. government said last week it will start allowing restaurants and pubs that meet physical distancing guidelines to reopen in mid-May.

Tostenson said the restaurant industry was buoyed by Premier John Horgan's comments about being impressed with the efforts of operators to meet the guidelines and reopen.

"He also phoned me personally," Tostenson said of Horgan. "And that really meant a lot and really motivated the industry that the premier has sent a signal that he knows how important the sector is, and he did say he is going to do what he can to get it back on its feet again."

Vancouver's council is also preparing to debate the issue on Tuesday of expanding patios to make more room for restaurants. Mayor Kennedy Stewart has said the city must think creatively to help spur recovery.

Helps said Victoria has plans beyond patios, including closing part of downtown's Government Street to vehicle traffic to allow restaurants, pubs and retailers more access to the major street.

"(Provincial health officer) Dr. Bonnie Henry has told us repeatedly that outside is better and so if we on city council can do our part to help businesses reopen with providing outside space for their customers, I think it's a win not only for business, but it will certainly animate the downtown for this summer," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2020.





Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press