Vancouver diners could soon be sitting down at restaurant tables all over the Vancouver Art Gallery plaza, on sidewalks all over the city, in laneways or on streets that are shut down so they can be used for outdoor dining.
That’s what some business leaders, restaurants owners and one city councillor are pushing for as a key strategy to help the city’s restaurants and bars survive COVID-19 once they are allowed to do more than the current take-out only – a level of service that many restaurants are providing, but for many, which is barely covering the basic bills.
But if restaurants, when they reopen, can only use half their tables, that doesn’t balance the books either – unless they can put a whole lot of tables outside.
“If we don’t do it, we’re going to see a landscape that’s obliterated by the pandemic,” said Charles Gauthier, executive director of Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, an organization that represents 7,000 downtown businesses. “Our culinary scene is world renowned and we’re not going to have that.”
The idea of allowing a massive increase in outdoor restaurant seating is an idea already being pitched for some European cities, which already typically have more of that than many Canadian and American ones.
And cities throughout Canada and the United States are pondering it.
Early research appears to indicate that transmission of the novel coronavirus in outdoor settings is rare, making it safer than anything indoors, even at half-capacity.
Delta City Councillor Dylan Kruger is pitching the idea in that Vancouver suburb.
Local restaurants say they’re going to need something different to break even, once they’re allowed to open under new restrictions. (The B.C. Food and Restaurant Association is working with the Provincial Health Officer to come up with safety protocols and is expected to have a plan by next week.)
“We have a 185-person capacity. We do have to hit that number fairly often to make it,” says Emily Hancock, the general manager of Donnellan’s Irish Pub on the Granville Street entertainment strip. If the city allowed the pub to expand onto Granville in front and maybe even Helmcken to the side, “it would be a huge, huge help.”
But it all depends on the city’s ability to dump its usual fees and bureaucratic processes and move quickly, according to everyone who is promoting the idea.
“We certainly would support more outdoor seating. But the city has to be more accommodating,” says Ken Carty, who owns a chain of restaurants called Burgoo, with four of its five locations in Vancouver.
When he applied for a patio permit for his Burrard location, it took him nine months and it now costs him $7,200 a year for a space that’s only about seven metres wide. Businesses that have patios also generally have to comply with a precise series of rules that require fencing and sometimes a special platform to be built, limits on the numbers of tables and insurance.
If the city could find a fast way to give approvals, Mr. Carty could see expanding his current patio space on Main Street, which is on private land, out to the sidewalk or 15th Avenue to the side.
That road could be blocked off and filled with tables as was done just one block away, at 14th and Main, in one of the “parklet” experiments installed over the past five years in various spots around the city.
Mr. Gauthier is also adamant that the concept can only succeed if the city drastically changes its usual processes.
“We need the bureaucracy to get out of the way. It should be like public health: Give some guidelines, then go in and adjust if you need to. Holding it all back until it’s perfect won’t work.”
The city councillor who has pitched the idea of expediting patio permits and letting restaurants and craft breweries spread out onto available public space nearby is hoping for a quick and flexible city response, too.
"We could start seeing openings soon and, in the life of a restaurant, a week is forever,” said Non-Partisan Association Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung, who, as someone who launched the popular Dine Out Vancouver concept, is especially attuned to the dynamics of restaurants.
“The challenge is going to be the city’s mindset. They always try to regulate for the worst scenario.”
Ms. Kirby-Yung says she is disappointed that Mayor Kennedy Stewart and the majority of council delayed debate and action on her motion this past Tuesday. It now won’t be up for discussion until May 12.
But the mayor said he thinks staff can move quickly once a new strategy is approved, which he expects will happen in two weeks.
“We can do temporary things fast.”
He had already been talking to a group of restaurant operators in Yaletown, before the global stay-at-home orders hit, who wanted to shut down their small streets on weekends to be able to let more people eat outside.
“I think in the short term, it’s a good idea and, in the long term, a great idea,” the mayor said.
Because so many sidewalks in Vancouver are relatively narrow, expanding restaurant outdoor space will mean either putting tables on the road and leaving the sidewalk open for pedestrians – a very popular arrangement in Italy – or putting tables on the sidewalk and blocking off curb lanes for pedestrians to walk in.
Mr. Gauthier said downtown parking shortages could be relieved by letting people park in various underground office parkades, since they aren’t being used anyway.
And, he says, parking has to take second place at a time like this.
“If we lose roadway space to accommodate this for public health, that’s the priority.”
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