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An empty patio is seen on St. Patrick's Day in Gastown in downtown Vancouver, March 17, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Canadians can expect to see a lot more patio space as the country starts to emerge from lockdowns.

Cities including Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver have brought in or are eyeing rules that would make it easier for restaurants to expand into public spaces such as roads and parking areas, creating outdoor seating roomy enough that patrons can maintain physical distancing.

The move comes amid dire warnings that the restaurant industry is facing an existential crisis and follows the lead of Europe and the United States, where many cities have been quick to allow these businesses more flexibility.

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On Wednesday, Hamilton Councillor Jason Farr plans to introduce a motion, seconded by the Mayor, calling for a cheaper and more streamlined patio approval process that would let restaurants seat patrons on public roads.

“[Hamilton is] not seeing the kind of traffic volume that historically we see, so closing a lane probably would have little to no impact,” Mr. Farr said. “There’s a good argument to utilize some of that space, help out our burgeoning restaurant industry and at the same time not really truly affect the traffic in any great way.”

His motion would allow Hamilton’s business improvement areas (BIAs) to work with the city on creating the patios. In areas without BIAs, the process could be triggered through a survey that demonstrates high support from businesses on a given block. The city would waive the cost of fencing or other infrastructure, and the new spaces would ideally be ready to go when provincial restrictions again allow dining at restaurants.

The difficulty of running a restaurant while keeping customers distanced has been clear since the initial months of the pandemic. In early March, shortly before the nationwide lockdown in Italy, Roman cafés and restaurants were abruptly told to seat people at least one metre apart.

Now, with more known about the virus, two-metre gaps are required by many cities that have begun to reopen. But such distancing demands a large number of empty seats, which threatens to wreak havoc on already precarious restaurant finances.

“If conditions don’t improve over the next few months, one out of every two independent restaurants does not expect to survive,” Shanna Munro, chief executive officer of the industry association Restaurants Canada, warned in an open letter last week, calling this “by far the worst crisis” her organization had seen.

A small number of restaurants in foreign cities have installed isolation pods that allow patrons to dine without endangering each other. But other cities have taken the simpler approach of facilitating restaurant expansion into nearby public space.

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Winnipeg was the first Canadian city to allow this sort of flexibility, announcing a cheaper and quicker patio policy several weeks ago, with temporary licences in effect through this month. According to city data, 16 patios had been approved as of Monday.

Kate Fenske, CEO of the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone, said most of the new patios are at suburban restaurants, which have more room into which to expand. Her group is working to find opportunities in the core as well.

“We’re trying to figure out, ‘How do we make this work for all of downtown?’ ” she said. “You know, Winnipeggers, we love our patios. We get through the long winter and as soon as it’s sunny and above zero we start thinking about it.”

On Monday, Calgary city council voted unanimously to make it easier for restaurants and other businesses to spill out their doors and onto sidewalks and roads once the province’s pandemic rules are relaxed, provided public access is maintained.

“The response from [city staff] is they’re going to say yes unless there’s a really good reason not to,” said Councillor Druh Farrell, adding that Calgary will no longer be charging for foregone parking revenue, a rule that had previously made such pop-ups quite expensive.

Vancouver is also eyeing more flexible outdoor dining. A spokesperson said that the city had a prepandemic pilot project that allowed restaurants to occupy some roads and said staff were looking at expanding this approach. More details are expected this week.

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In Hamilton, Mr. Farr said that the reduction in driving makes the policy shift a simple decision.

“Parking revenue is way down anyway,” he said. “So here we have, you know, the meeting of underutilized spots, whether they’re on street or in our city-owned lots, and ultimately a requirement for space to safely serve when and if restaurants are allowed to reopen. So it’s actually not a bad marriage.”

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