It’s no secret that local restaurants and bars within the Kitchener-Waterloo Region have taken a hit like no other this year.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, local restaurants who were forced to close temporarily had to adjust their business model to allow for more take-out options and curbside pickups.
During the spring and summer months, the same businesses were able to expand their outdoor seating onto their own private properties, or on city sidewalks, to accommodate more customers and bring more business back into the Region.
However, with regional COVID-19 cases steadily on the rise and winter around the corner, restaurants are banking on their loyal patrons to continue coming in, whether they can be accommodated indoors or outdoors.
The provincial government has also allowed restaurants and bars to serve customers inside — the establishments have been working to keep their indoor spaces clean and safe for guests.
Restaurants within the province have applied new rules when entering their businesses, such as wearing face masks, and have implemented strict cleaning and distancing protocols for staff and customers.
However, even with strict rules being enforced in restaurants and bars, customers are wary about dining indoors and prefer to eat on patios where COVID-19 is less likely to spread.
Cory Bluhm, executive director of economic development at City of Kitchener, said that it is up to the business and their landlords if they can integrate roof structures or heaters on the properties.
“There are restrictions that they have to abide by that are building code and fire code requirements, as well as public health [requirements],” Bluhm said.
Installing more heating infrastructures for the winter, however, can result in a huge investment for local businesses. The Charcoal Group of Restaurants, which operates eight restaurants in the Waterloo Region, including Wildcraft Grill + Long Bar, The Bauer Kitchen and Beertown Public House, has ordered $125,000 worth of heaters for the upcoming winter season, according to WaterlooChronicle.ca. The company was originally forced to lay off 1,000 of its employees when the pandemic hit in March.
Cities are prohibited under the Municipal Act to lend any direct funding to businesses. The Uptown Waterloo Business Improvement Area (the BIA) created the “Come Back Up” funding program for all uptown Waterloo businesses to apply to once they reopened, allowing businesses to receive up to $2,500. Funding for this program ended on Aug. 23, after the BIA was able to assist 49 businesses with a total of approximately $95,000.
As of the beginning of October, no public grants or programs for restaurants within KW have been announced in preparation for the second wave.
Local business owners like Glenn Smith, owner of Ethel’s Lounge in uptown Waterloo, believe a limited number of people will feel comfortable eating outside during the winter, even if heaters or shelters are used. Ethel’s Lounge is planning to cover a portion of their patio once the colder months begin.
“A small part of [the patio] is actually covered, [and] we have the heater underneath. I don’t expect people are going to be happy sitting under a tent with a heater all winter,” Smith said.
“When you can only have 25 people on a patio with heaters it’s hardly worth the cost — it’s not cost-effective [for some businesses] to rent a tent for $10,000 or $20,000.”
Tracy Van Kalsbeek, executive director of the Uptown Waterloo Business Improvement Area, says the BIA has advocated for small businesses during this pandemic and will continue to do so.
Along with their post-COVID-19 funding program, the BIA is also talking with the Waterloo Regional Tourism Marketing Corporation (Explore Waterloo Region) to design a campaign that will hopefully get residents thinking more positively about outdoor patios during the winter.
“I am hoping that there are ways that we can encourage people to think a little bit differently. Our businesses need help,” Van Kalsbeek said. “If anybody says that businesses … are in recovery mode, they’re not. They’re still suffering [and] they need cash flow.”
Fortunately, choosing to eat or shop locally has been a priority for some KW residents. Restaurants like Ethel’s Lounge have seen an increase in tips from their patrons, as well as more visibility on social media.
“When we re-opened, everyone who came back had kind words to say. A lot of patrons tipped more than they did before, they appreciated that our servers were under stress and my customers have been fantastic,” Smith said.
It’s the kind of support from the community that Van Kalsbeek hopes will continue in the coming months.
“Choosing local has really resonated with people. Businesses are definitely not out of the woods. And we want them to be here when this is all over,” Van Kalsbeek said.