Nanaimo’s downtown eateries have been thrown a lifeline now that city hall has approved new on-street patios and is allowing more seating on sidewalks to make up for lost seats indoors.
The decision to use public space will “make the difference between survival or not” for restaurants facing a drastic reduction in indoor seating due to pandemic-related restrictions, said Kim Smythe, president and chief executive of the Greater Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce.
It is also a way to help revive the city centre in the wake of COVID-19.
“I think it will make downtown Nanaimo a lot more colourful and the street life more interesting and busier,” Smythe said.
Nanaimo is not alone — other municipalities are also looking to allow businesses to temporarily operate on public space as they operate within new social-distancing rules.
Sidney council unanimously supported a staff recommendation this week to permit restaurants to add seating in on- and off-street parking areas, as did Langford.
Central Saanich council is asking staff to develop a temporary patio program to help restaurants survive. Victoria is examining ways to use public space for businesses and pedestrians. Both Oak Bay and Victoria have altered some streets to make room for pedestrians to stay apart.
In Nanaimo, temporary curb-height platforms will be popping up in front of downtown eateries in coming days now that restaurants are again allowed to seat diners. A prohibition on table service, imposed in mid-March, was lifted this month, provided safety guidelines are followed.
Nanaimo’s move follows the province’s announcement last week that it will fast-track applications for expanded patios to help restaurants cope with the new protocols, which say seating capacity must be halved, tables must be two metres apart, that barriers be used if distancing can’t always be maintained, and no more than six people can sit at a table.
Gaetan Brosseau, owner of the Melange and Mon Petit Choux restaurants on Nanaimo’s Commercial Street, said he is thrilled. He’s getting more sidewalk space for Melange, which opened in December, plus there will be platform space on the street at Mon Petit Choux, specializing in baked goods. “We will use the parking space — absolutely,” he said, estimating that it may hold 10 to 14 seats depending on the eventual measurements.
Outdoor seating will make “downtown a lot more livelier,” Brosseau said. “It will be great for everyone.”
Streets will not be closed to traffic.
Nanaimo councillors agreed to reallocate $25,000 from the city’s downtown event grants budget toward the program. Many events are not going ahead this year due to COVID-19, staff told council.
The plan is for the platforms to be used from June through September. Restaurants with patios will be charged $14 per square metre as a licence fee. It will cost about $1,800 to build each platform, with the cost of construction to be recouped over two years from restaurants.
Smythe said that without the outdoor seatings, some small restaurants where space is tight would able to reopen with only 30 per cent of their previous indoor seating. Extra space on platforms allows them to make up for the reduction.
It will be up to individual businesses to decorate their platforms, which are permitted on Commercial Street and in Old Town, where businesses have little room to expand.