In the early afternoon on the first day of Stage 2 reopening in Guelph, customers lounged in the sun at physically-distanced patio tables, sipping beer from plastic cups, poured by servers wearing face masks.
It was the first time such activities were permitted since the start of the 88-day provincial lockdown, which has dealt a particularly crushing blow to the restaurant industry.
Now, amid the new normal of dining out, a sense of cautious optimism is bringing some much-needed life back into the city.
“It's exciting and nerve wracking,” said Kat White, the general manager of the Wooly Pub on Woolwich Street. “The second (the government) announced patios were opening, it was emails and phone calls galore.”
“It feels awesome,” said Michelle Hum as she enjoyed a drink on the Buon Gusto patio. “We were really looking forward to this.”
On June 8, the area covered by Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health was given the green light to allow partial reopening of other businesses including shopping malls and hair salons.
“It’s really great to get back in the groove and back to what we're supposed to be doing,” said Hilary Ebert, co-owner of Sip Club on Wyndham Street. Like many local restaurants, Sip Club has been serving take-out only since March.
Public health guidelines require newly-opened businesses to follow a number of protocols including mandatory masks for all employees, physical distancing of at least two metres, and sanitation stations with disinfectant spray and hand sanitizer at all entrances and exits.
But while many restauranteurs say the new guidelines are a manageable adjustment, the physical distancing restrictions mean operating at a modest 50 per cent capacity – if that.
“This is a fraction of what we used to do,” said White, gesturing to the five physically-distanced tables at the Wooly rear patio. “(and) it's in such a different capacity, so it's definitely a learning curve.”
But some restaurants will have an advantage this summer, as loosened provincial rules now permit the expansion of patio space into private parking lots or sidewalks, with municipal approval. The Wooly, for example, has been approved to expand its patio into the adjacent parking lot.
“In the next couple of days, there will be patios in places that you normally haven't seen them,” said Marty Williams, the executive director of the Downtown Guelph Business Association. For those restaurants with less outdoor space, the DGBA and the City of Guelph are allowing patios to be set up outside of neighbouring establishments.
“The use of public space for these patios to support these businesses is what's paramount now,” said Williams. “We're also looking at selectively closing some streets at certain times and maybe having more communal eating areas.”
City council meets again on June 17. On the agenda is whether to put picnic tables around City Hall, which many are hoping will create a livelier downtown atmosphere, reminiscent of past summers.
But for now at least, the reality of reopening doesn’t mean business as usual.
“We're creeping back and taking baby steps. We're seeing what the public's response to this is,” said Nicole Hogg, the owner of Atmosphere on Carden Street. Hogg has taken a cautionary approach to reopening, and serves a small number of outdoor tables through a plexiglass window.
Over the weekend, some restaurants opened with reduced hours and accepted reservations only. Others were back to their regular hours and accepted walk-ins. But all tables have a seating time limit as both a safety precaution and a way to generate turnover in an industry desperate to get back on its feet.
But a number of other health and safety considerations, including how to provide access to public washrooms and whether to use disposable cutlery, present additional challenges.
As Buon Gusto manager Evan Derotto pointed out, it’s not a perfect system.
“It’s two steps forward and one step back from an environmental perspective,” he said, referring to his restaurant’s disposable paper menus. “We’re doing what we can but the reality is there’s so much extra waste being generated.”
In addition to the operational challenges, some industry workers are concerned about customer compliance with public health guidelines. “Most people are being extra cautious but you also have people that don't really seem to care,” said Sarah Gosselin, a manager at McCabes Irish Pub. “So you're battling both sides of it when you're serving tables.”
Looking ahead at what remains an uncertain summer season, the general consensus among business owners and customers in downtown Guelph is a feeling of hope.
“I’m fine with complying with whatever [the businesses] need,” said one customer, Rod Abel. “It’s just nice to get out … and hopefully soon we can put this behind us.”