An air of relief, nervousness and uncertainty drifted over downtown Sidney Tuesday as British Columbia entered a new phase in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The provincial government had advertised May 19 — the day after the Victoria Day long weekend — as the start of a new phase in efforts to reopen the economy as British Columbians pivot towards what provincial leaders have called a “new normal” in the wake of pandemic.
This new phase permits various businesses and services, including some retailers, personal grooming businesses and restaurants and pubs, to reopen their doors. This phase will also see the reopening of various public places such as libraries and parks, as well as the resumption of elective surgeries and other services in the broader health service sector.
But if the date loomed large on the calendars of businesses around the province, its dawning was not so much like a gun signalling the start of a race, but more like the tentative steps of a runner warming up.
Perhaps the most visible sign of this revival was the number of lines of would-be customers, all waiting patiently and adhering to social distancing rules, some wearing masks, standing outside of Sidney businesses. While such lines had existed outside local banks and some other businesses, including Sidney Bakery, during the pandemic’s peak period, their numbers appeared visibly larger Tuesday.
Other businesses, like Buddies Toys, opened their doors for the first time in months on Tuesday. The popular toy store had closed its retail location on March 17 before moving to online sales about a week later. Manager Lauren Powell admits to being nervous about reopening.
“Nervous because things are different,” she said. That difference is visible throughout the store, starting with a sign that limits the number of customers inside the store to three. Once they enter, arrows fastened to the floor channel their movement. Finally, a transparent plastic curtain separates staff from customers wishing to pay for their purchases.
Powell said the business had enough financial room to stay closed longer. “That wasn’t our main reason for reopening,” she said. “We are feeling that Vancouver Island, especially, is doing a good job. Sidney BIA is doing an amazing job with the resources that they are giving. The fire department was incredible coming in to do two tours of the store. They made us feel that we were ready.”
Powell says she feels “nervously confident” about reopening. “That’s probably how everyone is feeling,” she said.
Just around the corner from Buddies Toys is Maria’s Souvlaki Greek Restaurant.
It closed for nearly two months before starting to offer take-out last week. In doing so, it has morphed from a small but cozy sit-down restaurant with a social atmosphere into a large, permanent food truck with customers ordering from the street and a large plastic sheet separating them from staff taking orders.
Provincial orders limit restaurants to 50 per cent capacity and six persons per table, while requiring two metres between patrons sitting at different tables, and between patrons from different parties sitting at a bar or counter. Employers are also required to retain the contact information for one member of every party for 30 days in the event that health officials require contact tracing.
Pavlo Sdrakas, one of the owners of the restaurant, is still not sure whether he and his partners will open the restaurant for inside dining.
“There are a lot of rules,” he said, pointing to the requirement to collect contact information. “It’s good, but it is going to slow down the process. It’s never going to be the same where you can come in, sit down, eat and leave.” He is also not sure whether his restaurant will be physically able to accommodate the new rules. “We are content just to be take-out for now, because everybody picks up and leaves. Most people just want to do that anyway.”
Ultimately, Sdrakas expects things to be different and expects a learning curve. In fact, he has already had to adjust his practice. For example, he cannot take large orders after certain hours. Unless customers have called early enough, the restaurant won’t be able handle to orders. “I can only make so much food in a half-hour span.”
Jess Birring, owner of Sidney’s 3rd Street Cafe, is also still trying to grapple with the rules as they exist for restaurants. This said, he considers them “quite fair,” noting that the rules including the contact requirement aim to protect both staff and customers.
“The virus is not gone, and we certainly don’t want it to come back,” he said, adding that the rules represent a good start. “And we will see where we go from there.”
Popular with locals as well as out-of-towners, the cafe is reopening Thursday after being completely closed for more than two months. Birring compares the process of reopening to launching a new business.
Looking back on the last month, Birring describes the closure as a necessity in specifically praising the work of provincial health officer Bonnie Henry.
He is glad to be back, but expects a slow start to business, while Powell expects to live with a lot of uncertainty in the coming months.
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