Hot or cold, downtown restaurant and bar operators are eager to have customers kickback on their outdoor patios.
Barrie city council approved an early start to patio dining at its Monday meeting, beginning Apr. 1, about two weeks ahead of schedule. This will apply to the Patios Everywhere Program (PEP) and the Downtown BIA Patio Program (DBPP).
The PEP was approved by city council last May as part of COVID-19 economic recovery. Staff said the initiative in 2020 was successful with the approval of nine new patios, and businesses again have expressed interest for the program to continue this year. Fees for the patios that would normally be paid to the city will be waived again.
The PEP and DBPP would run until Nov. 30, which was the end date last year when Councillor Keenan Aylwin, who represents the downtown, got council approval to extend the patio season into late fall.
Downtown Barrie Business Association (BIA) executive director Kelly McKenna said tacking on those extra weeks was huge.
“It really helped the businesses to continue to have patrons and be able to sell their products in a safe and socially distanced way,” explained McKenna.
“That extension of the patio season from April 1 until November 30 is really going to help our businesses through recovery and just allow more people to come down and enjoy the outdoors.”
McKenna was thrilled to see the hustle and bustle downtown at the weekend as people were outdoors enjoying the warmth and sunshine. She is well aware the weather can turn on a dime, especially in early spring, but McKenna points out establishments are prepared thanks to the experience from last fall.
“Some of our businesses were right on top of it and they have outdoor heaters for the patios. For those that don’t have heaters, I have heard they have gotten creative by bringing blankets.”
McKenna says everybody has got more cabin fever than they have ever had and she think it’s the perfect time to get outside and explore the downtown. McKenna hopes people will use patio season and the warm weather to pop into a couple of shops, while still enjoying the other amenities such as the beaches and waterfront.
Food trucks will also be able to participate in this year’s program. Staff did not include food trucks in the original motion, but Councillor Clare Riepma was able to get an amendment passed at council general committee two weeks ago.
“I would hate to see us end up with a situation where we’re having these food trucks coming into an established business community and directly competing with businesses that are already struggling,” commented Councillor Aylwin.
He was reassured by Michelle Banfield, Director of Development Services, that staff would be considering the potential impact on nearby businesses as part of the operating criteria.
Banfield told councillors they don’t know where people are going to ask to put their trucks and said there will be very close examination of competition zones.
“The approval for the two that we gave last year was very specific, outlining all sorts of requirements, and had a little map highlighted in terms of where you can park and those sorts of things.”
McKenna said the other game-changer that happened at the weekend was new provincial COVID-19 rules for red zone regions like Simcoe-Muskoka, which allows restaurants and bars to use 50 per cent of their indoor seating capacity, or up to 50 people.
The original limit was ten, regardless of the size of the establishment.
“I really do believe this additional capacity will help support our downtown,” said McKenna. “and bring more people coming down here and help our businesses through this recovery stage.”
In fact, McKenna thinks dining out is one of the safest activities.
“We know that all of our businesses are contact tracing and making sure their employees are abiding by all COVID restrictions before they show up. It really is best practices.”