Manitoba restaurants wonder if reopening patios is worth risk during COVID-19

By | May 2, 2020

Restaurant owners in Manitoba are weighing the pros and cons of opening their patios on Monday.

“Right now, we are taking it day by day, week by week, month by month,” said Matthew Sabourin, president of Nonsuch Brewing Co. in Winnipeg’s Exchange District.

“But really, anything can change.”

As of Monday, the Manitoba government is allowing restaurants to open patios if they follow specific guidelines for physical distancing.

That follows more than a month of closures for non-essential businesses, mandated by a public health order intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

But Sabourin doesn’t plan on opening his restaurant’s patio anytime soon. Instead, his staff will continue the pickup and delivery services that have kept the business open the last several weeks.

Sabourin said he wasn’t expecting any news for restaurants until the summer, so he called a staff meeting last week to discuss their options.

“We decided we would re-evaluate next week, just to see what other folks are doing and get an idea of how the public’s also feeling,” said Sabourin.

“The state of mind is that it’s not safe [to reopen], and is it really worth the risk right now to potentially further expose ourselves and potentially infect the team? 

“It’s just not worth it right now.”

Rush for temporary patios ‘pretty stressful’

The City of Winnipeg, like Manitoba’s restaurateurs, only found out on Wednesday that the province would allow patios to open this Monday.

The city says it is expediting temporary permits for restaurants who want to open a patio by Monday. Those permits will be good until the end of May, when the city will re-evaluate the COVID-19 situation.

But a temporary patio is a risky business move, says Cho Venevongsa, who owns nine restaurants, including all of the Chosabi and Wasabi locations in Winnipeg.

He said he’ll open up his two existing patios, but won’t bother creating a temporary one for his other locations.

“Putting something together quick like that is pretty stressful. It’s very stressful now as it is,” he said, adding that he can’t count on Manitoba May weather to offer perfect patio conditions.

Restaurant owner Cho Venevongsa looks out his window waiting for customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. He says he will reopen his existing patios, but won’t go to the trouble of creating temporary ones. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

“We’re just going to focus on the takeout and delivery. We don’t know if it’s going to be busy or not on the patio.”

Venevongsa said he’ll also have to figure out how to monitor patrons who need to use the washroom inside his restaurants while dining on the patios.

A different patio season

Many restaurants in Manitoba will be opening their patios, like Jan Regehr. The owner of Pineridge Hollow said her patio and retail shop in Oakbank will be open to customers on Monday.

“We really missed our guests,” she said. “Our phone was ringing off the hook as soon as that announcement was made.”

Staff at Pineridge Hollow clean off and assemble patio furniture to be ready by Monday. The Oakbank restaurant will reopen its patio and retail store to customers on Monday. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The restaurant and events venue kept business going by offering takeout and creating a meal program that packages local products for sale.

Now that she’ll be able to open her patio, Regehr said she’ll be working to follow all of the province’s guidelines for reopening — everything from ensuring customers are at least two metres apart to providing hand sanitizer to cleaning chairs and reusable items between customers.

She said she’s also been working with her health inspector to find safe ways of completing more nuanced actions that used to be fairly simple — like serving coffee.

“I didn’t know if we could leave a carafe on the table,” she said.

On one hand, that would have be cleaned between guests. 

But on the other, “that’s better because then the server has less interactions with the guest,” said Regehr.

“So it’s working through this and interpreting what they’re saying, because it’s not that clear.”

Reopening is a balancing act between keeping everyone safe, and keeping the character of the business alive, said Regehr. To do that, she said she’ll keep flowers on the tables — which will be wiped down after every customer.

“We’ve given up so much as a community and beauty is important, you know?” she said. “I think people are starved for connection and inspiration.”

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