Saanich is looking at ways to help local restaurants expand their seating capacity while permitting social distancing.
After a mandatory two-month closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants across B.C. are allowed to once again welcome dine-in guests but are limited to 50 per cent capacity until further notice so that tables can be adequately spaced.
Under normal circumstances, “a night with 50 per cent occupancy is considered a bad night” for restaurants and extended periods of reduced capacity could spell financial trouble for owners, said Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes.
In his opinion, the best way to expand restaurant capacity during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is to expand restaurants’ existing patios or to create outdoor seating areas by taking over parking stalls or sidewalk space.
Haynes pointed to Uptown Shopping Centre where the internal boulevard is now a space for pedestrians, and eventually, outdoor restaurant seating.
On May 15, Uptown Boulevard was closed to vehicle traffic indefinitely, said Kristy Lowes, marketing director for the mall. She said closing the boulevard will allow pedestrians to use the roadway and keep sidewalks clear for customers to practise social distancing while lining up outside stores. Some parking stalls remain open on the internal streets but Lowes recommends using the underground lots.
Eventually, Uptown hopes to allow restaurants to create outdoor seating to increase capacity, Lowes said.
She said some steps will need to be taken to contain new patio areas to adhere to the province’s guidelines for serving food and beverages. For now, benches and tables and chairs have been added to Uptown Boulevard and Lowes said performances have been scheduled for the now car-free street.
Saanich council will review a proposal from Coun. Zac de Vries calling for staff to look into options for supporting local businesses as they reopen and supporting economic resilience in the District. In the report, he emphasizes a need for patio permitting options in both public and private spaces.
On May 22, the province announced that the Liquor and Cannabis Regulation branch would be launching a streamlined online application process for businesses wanting to expand patio spaces until the end of October.
Once the provincial application is complete, restaurants can seek approval from their municipality.
Saanich will need to be flexible to meet the demand, de Vries said adding the municipality will also have to be “innovative” as many local eateries are in strip malls rather than on properties abutting the sidewalk.
The District’s mechanisms for permitting patio seating will need to include both business owners and landlords when it comes to private property, he said.
Saanich is “committed to working quickly” to address the needs of local businesses and ensure that restaurants can make the most of the summer season, Haynes said.
“We need to be nimble in how we start to open back up,” he added, emphasizing the importance of listening to industry stakeholders while ensuring residents feel safe to go out and support the local economy.
–With files from Ashley Wadhwani.