Caution abounds as Alberta eases huge raft of COVID-19 restrictions

Restaurateur Leslie Echino laughs at the notion that even as Alberta lifts many more COVID-19 restrictions her business could return to anywhere close to normal.

Restaurants, bars, lounges and cafes no longer limited to half capacity

Annabelle’s Kitchen owner Leslie Echino poses for a photo at her restaurant in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Restaurateur Leslie Echino laughs at the notion that even as Alberta lifts many more COVID-19 restrictions her business could return to anywhere close to normal.

Restaurants, bars, lounges and cafes will no longer be limited to half capacity starting today, although they will still have to follow distancing rules and seat no more than six people per table.

That means Echino won't be able to squeeze any more customers into Annabelle's Kitchen's 70-square-metres of space in Calgary's Marda Loop neighbourhood.

"It doesn't change one single spot in my restaurant," she said. "I cannot put any more bums in seats."

The restaurant had a pre-pandemic capacity of 52, but can only hold 18 to 20 with physical distancing. Reducing the required spacing by half a metre, as other countries have done, could help accommodate a few more.

Costs deferred, not reduced

Overhead costs such as rent and utilities have been deferred, but not reduced. Echino said the restaurant would be devastated without a patio that doubles its capacity and draws customers in warm weather.

She added she doesn't see the restaurant industry ever returning to its traditional dine-in model, and businesses will have to diversify long term with catering, curb-side pickup and delivery.

Also today, health services such as acupuncture, massage and reflexology can take clients, as can nail, skin and tanning salons.

Customer Joshua Pether said he's excited to be back at Immaculate Concept Tattoo and Piercing in Mission.

He says he's "comfortable with it," and not bothered by the masks, sanitizing and other safety measures.

"If everyone follows the rules, it will be fine," Pether said as he settled back in the chair, face mask in place, for a left bicep tattoo. "The rules aren't hard to follow."

Owner Steve Peace said he's been hearing from a lot of customers like Pether this week.

Customer Joshua Pether, left, gets a tattoo from Steve Peace at Immaculate Concept Tattoo and Piercing in Mission on June 12. (John Gilson/CBC)

"It's been off the hook, people wanting in," Peace said, adding that he can't wait to start posting his work on Instagram again.

"It's good, there's a little bit of a backlog of tattoo work that needs to be done out there."

Peace has been shut down since mid-March.

"It's the longest stretch any tattoo artist has ever gone without tattooing, it's crazy," he said. "A lot of tattoo artists don't know what to do with themselves, we just love tattooing so much."

'It feels like Christmas morning'

Over in Kensington, Aaron Rigg-Goldblum is also eager to get back to training at Urban Athlete Fitness Studio.

"I feel safe and it feels good to be back in general," Rigg-Goldblum said. 

Co-owner Kohl Kehler, who supplemented his business with virtual classes and eventually outdoor boot camps, said he's happy to be open again.

"It feels great, it feels like Christmas morning," he said. "A late, late night last night to get everything ready to go, and then to walk in and have it quiet, and turn on the music this morning, it was a breath of fresh air to get the gears going again."

Kehler said he had no problem with being allowed to open a week sooner than expected.

 "We've been here pretty much every day since we closed, to get things ready to reopen. It was a bit of a short notice — we thought we'd have another week, or two, on top of that — but we're happy to be earlier than later."

Over in the Beltline, Outlash Beauty Boutique owner Jessica Lapuz says it's been a scramble to prepare, but adds they're ready to work.

"It's been really hard just not seeing our clients, not working, I mean for a lot of us this is the longest we've all been out of work, you know, waiting on the unknown."

Happy to wear a mask

Customer Emina Alicajic says her visit is also about helping out a small business that she loves, and encourages Calgarians to take responsibility for their own safety as well.

"I feel extremely safe, I'm not concerned at all," she said. "I think every business is taking this extremely seriously.

"With that said, I think that we can't hold the small businesses accountable for our safety, we have to hold ourselves accountable as well. So, this will work beautifully as long as it's a two-way street."

Arts Commons, a multi-venue theatre complex in downtown Calgary, is also rethinking its post-pandemic future, even though some performances can resume.

No vocal performances yet

Instrumental concerts are being allowed, but respiratory droplets that might carry the novel coronavirus mean there still won't be vocal performances. Performing groups can have up to 50 members.

Arts Commons president Alex Sarian said there's no timeline for shows to resume.

"The last thing we want, both as an institution and as a sector, is for a second wave to be traced back to an artistic gathering," he said. "That would be devastating."

Sarian said Arts Commons is exploring ways to showcase the arts this summer through outdoor or livestreamed events — an especially important offering with travel still largely off the table.

"While we're grateful to be given the opportunity to start thinking about reopening, we also have to look at our business model and figure out collectively when does it truly make sense to really start opening the floodgates?"

Indoor recreation, fitness and sports facilities can also reopen, including gyms, arenas and pools.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said not to expect any city-run facilities to be running today, aside from perhaps some outdoor dry pads for sports like ball hockey.

"We laid off 15 per cent of our staff. We didn't hire our seasonal workers," he said. "You can't turn around on a dime. When the province announces on Tuesday, you just can't have all those people hired by Friday."

'Reopening of facilities is very complex'

The City of Edmonton is reviewing how recreation centres, arenas, pools and libraries may open and says they might be phased in over time or continue on hold.

"The reopening of facilities is very complex and given the financial impacts of the pandemic, some services will not return this season," the city said.

Libraries are allowed to unlock their doors, as well, but Calgary is waiting until June 23 to reopen in three locations. If that goes well, more branches will be added in the following weeks.

Movie theatres, bingo halls, team sports and casinos (minus table games) are also set to reopen.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical health officer, said Friday that she understands people are excited by the government's latest lifting of COVID-19 restrictions.

"It is important to all of us to remember that this virus is not gone. COVID-19 is still circulating in our communities and will do so for many months to come."

She said with increased activities and gatherings, there is increased potential for all Albertans to be exposed to COVID-19.

The province reported 30 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday but no new deaths. Hinshaw said there are 386 active cases and 53 of those people are in hospital.

With files from John Gilson and Pamela Fieber


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