Winnipeggers toast to restarting the economy as Manitoba loosens COVID-19 restrictions

By | May 4, 2020

The sky was grey, but the beer was cold.

The chilly weather wasn’t going to stop Kathy Teetaert from enjoying a patio in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, after COVID-19 limited her dining options for more than a month.

“I think it’s time to start supporting our restaurants,” she said at the King’s Head patio on Monday afternoon, “and besides, I’m tired of cooking.”

Manitoba is embarking today on one of the most aggressive economic restarts of any Canadian province.

In addition to restaurant patios, the province is giving hair salons, dental clinics and most retail outlets the choice to open their doors starting today, so long as they follow strict rules surrounding physical distancing and sanitation.

Many were surprised at how quickly the government kick-started the economy, announced only five days earlier, after health officials spent weeks preaching a cautious return.

Patio-goers in good spirits

Customers enjoying a brew at the King’s Head patio were in good spirits, despite the unusual experience.

“I didn’t bring my mask because it’s kind of hard to eat,” Teetaert joked to their waiter, while her husband chuckled.

“At least you’re out in the air,” the waiter said, any smile disguised by her face-covering.

Dennis and Kathy Teetaert are enjoying the chance to get out of their kitchen and onto a patio, even if the temperatures are below seasonal. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Christopher Graves, the pub’s owner, said he’s pleased the dreary start to the day turned pleasant. The temperature began to approach 10 degrees during the noon-hour.

“We’re very excited; it’s been a very tough six weeks for us,” he said. 

WATCH | Patio season in a pandemic

King’s Head Pub owner Chris Graves says he’s cautiously optimistic as the outdoor patio opened for business on May 4. 1:14

Graves said the King’s Head could quickly pivot to patio service because they already had staff in place from the grocery delivery business it launched in the early days of the pandemic. They shut the doors of their pub in mid-March, before the mandated closure of non-essential businesses.

Each of their waiters are wearing masks and gloves, they’re spacing tables at least two metres apart, and disposable glasses and cutlery are found in bulk.

“We’re going above and beyond to make sure that we’re doing it as safely as possible,” Graves said.

The province will open indoor dining at restaurants no earlier than June 1, according to the province’s reopening plan, announced last week.

For now, the government is continuing to encourage people to stay home, even as it gives many businesses the license to reopen. Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s top doctor, is advising that people shouldn’t gather at patio tables with individuals from other households, but it isn’t enforceable.

WATCH | Dr. Roussin offers advice for patio-goers

Dr. Brent Roussin says restaurants won’t be expected to ask customers if they’re part of the same households, but urges Manitobans not to gather in big groups. 0:37

Hunter and Gunn owner Jeremy Regan has changed the way his barbershop operates.

A haircut is only available by appointment, no walk-ins. Clients must wait outside, or in their vehicles, until their barber is ready. Only half his barbers are working at a time.

“We don’t have the biggest shop so we have to kind of be a little creative on how we keep people apart,” Regan said.

He hasn’t heard any pushback from customers.

“I think people are so damn desperate to get a haircut that they’re willing to almost do anything to be able to come, so it hasn’t been a problem.”

Sandra Foehr, seated, is back at Essentique Spa and Salon for the first time since February. She’s excited to finally return to her hair stylist and doesn’t mind that she’ll be wearing a mask. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

At Essentique Spa and Salon, Sandra Foehr is trying to look like herself again. Her roots haven’t been done since February.

“I got really excited [to return], I’m almost not recognizing myself in the mirror when I look in the morning,” she said at the Academy Road salon, which began operating Monday without its spa. 

Many storefronts at Winnipeg’s malls, however, were not ready for opening day.

Only 30 of the roughly 200 stores at CF Polo Park were even open. The mall had maybe 400 shoppers at once in the afternoon, a fraction of the 20,000 to 35,000 shoppers the mall averages in an entire day

Mall’s emptiness strange

“It’s strange,” said Florence Salvador, who wanted to return products at two stores, but both were closed.

“Usually it’s packed, right?”

General manager Peter Havens said many mall stores will open in the coming week and a half. Stores had just three working days to prepare, and some are still looking for personal protective equipment.

Shoppers follow floor markers to maintain a distance between each other at CF Polo Park. Most of the stores in the shopping centre were closed on Monday, the first day the mall could open in a month. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

“Everybody, I would say, is a little apprehensive, not exactly knowing what to expect, although we feel very confident that we provided lots of visual cues and safety for our tenants and our customers,” he said.

Using floor markers, the mall wants shoppers to treat their hallways like the highways — stay to the right and pass on the left, Havens said.

Loren Remillard calls Monday a turning point for a business sector bruised by an economic shutdown.

“Psychologically, what this day represents is that the efforts to flatten the curve have yielded some significant successes for Manitoba,” said the president and chief executive officer of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.

“Today, because of the successes, because of our diligent efforts, we’re able to begin to slowly, responsibly and safely start to re-engage our business community.”

He wouldn’t estimate how many eligible businesses are welcoming customers, but said the many companies still closed are prioritizing safety.

They could also be scrambling to get signage ready and employees trained, added Jonathan Alward with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

And once they’re open, will their customers come back?

Winnipeg began to show signs of life on Monday as the first phase of the province’s economic restart began opening up many non-essential businesses, including most retail outlets. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

“You can’t really overstate how important the month of May is going to be for a lot of businesses,” Alward told CBC Manitoba’s Radio Noon, anticipating that consumer confidence has taken a beating.

“A lot of customers are going to be reluctant, I think, to go back and shop,” said Alward.

At his pub, Graves was thrilled to see a scattering of customers again. When asked if he had a deal on the menu to get customers there, he laughed.

“You’re getting served on a patio in Winnipeg — there’s your special,” Graves said, chuckling.

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