British Columbia

Vancouver's Entertainment District reopens in survival mode due to pandemic

Reduced capacity following a lengthy closure has Granville Street businesses anxious about 'the great reboot,' and wondering when they can safely welcome back large enough crowds to pay the bills.

Reduced capacity following a lengthy closure has Granville Street businesses anxious about 'the great reboot'

Bill Kerasiotis, one of the principal owners of Colony Bar, says it's unclear how profitable he can be when he is operating at 50 per cent capacity. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

At this time last year, Bill Kerasiotis was nearly finished transforming one of Granville Street's biggest nightclubs into something completely different.

The DJ booths and dance floors at Caprice were replaced with a bocce ball court and arcade games to attract the kind of crowd that isn't interested in a wild Saturday night on Granville but might stop by for a post-work beer on a Tuesday.

Colony opened almost exactly a year ago, drawing big weekday crowds that became even larger on weekends.

Kerasiotis says similar establishments opened nearby, bringing a new clientele to the neighbourhood, which caused business to boom until the pandemic hit.

"We've been on Granville Street for about 20 years, primarily as nightclub operators, and we've gone through a lot of highs and lows," he said.

"This all really brought the street back, so the timing of this [pandemic] is just frustrating."

After being closed for two months due to COVID-19, Colony Bar on Granville Street in Vancouver reopened on May 25, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Pre-pandemic Granville Street was far from perfect — concerns about violence and empty storefronts with for lease signs in the windows have been around for years. But Kerasiotis believes it was trending in the right direction before COVID-19.

Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association President and CEO Charles Gauthier acknowledges many businesses are struggling and some have even gone under, but he believes the neighbourhood can regain its momentum.

"We've gone from the great suppression to the great reboot," Gauthier said. 

"We're welcoming people back in a very slow, methodical way."

The question is, when will it be safe to welcome people back at a capacity that will pay the bills.

New businesses

Last month, on April 1, Clemen Oliveras and her husband Ian Turnbull were supposed to be celebrating the grand opening of their new restaurant, Brunch.

When they were looking for a location, they couldn't believe their luck when they learned the most popular brunch spot in their neighbourhood — Twisted Fork on Granville Street near Davie Street — was moving.

The couple signed a lease to move in and immediately began turning it into their dream business: a restaurant that blends the meals Oliveras grew up on in her hometown of Mexico City with Turnbull's favourite Canadian dishes.

They remodelled the entire space and prepared for the grand opening, then COVID-19 hit.

Ian Turnbull, owner of Brunch restaurant on Granville Street, cleans the window of his restaurant in Vancouver on Tuesday, May 26, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"It's been very stressful," Oliveras said.

"Every morning we're like, 'Yeah, it's going to work and we're going to get through this' because it can bring you down."

Brunch started offering delivery and takeout earlier this month, but as of Tuesday morning, the only two people to enjoy a meal inside the restaurant were the couple's six- and eight-year-old sons, Oliver and William.

From right, Clement Oliveras and Ian Turnbull, seen with their sons Oliver Turnbull, 6, and William Turnbull, 8, hoped to open their restaurant on April 1, 2020 but they were forced to wait two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

They're excited to begin dine-in service Saturday, but it's unclear how profitable they can be under the province's health and safety guidelines that only allow them to operate at 50 percent capacity..

Still, Turnbull says positive reviews and encouraging words from early customers give him hope.

"We can imagine it full of people with the music playing and glasses clinking," he said.

"Everybody got hit by the pandemic, so let's all help each other out with everybody pushing for everybody."

The new Granville 

Like Turnbull, Gauthier often daydreams about restaurants once again filled with people.

In the long term, he wants to see more hotels and taller buildings on the strip that provide more office space, similar to the shared workspace that is replacing the old Tom Lee Music building.

He says before the pandemic, companies had expressed interest in those kinds of developments that would add foot traffic to the Entertainment District. 

"I don't think any of that interest is going to wane," he said.

"This is just a blip for them because they have a longer term horizon and I think we'll see those projects move forward."

In the short term, the city is looking at expanding patio space for restaurants so they can bring in more customers.

Oliveras and Kerasiotis agree, however, that what businesses really need is to get back up to 100 per cent capacity as soon as it's safe to do so.

"It's so devastating for a lot of people," Kerasiotis said.

"I just hope everyone lands well."

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email impact@cbc.ca.

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.  

About the Author

Jesse Johnston worked in private radio from 2004 to 2014 in Vancouver, Red Deer and Calgary. He spent the next five years based out of Surrey (his hometown) as CBC's South of the Fraser reporter until he joined the Impact Team in 2019. Jesse is a two-time recipient of the RTDNA Dave Rogers Award for Best Short Radio Feature. He loves radio, running and dogs. He also loves the Detroit Lions, but if you follow him on Twitter, you already knew that. @Jesse_Johnston

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