Edmonton

Edmonton businesses get back to work as Stage 1 of Alberta's relaunch kicks off 

Doors that have been closed to the public for nearly two months due to the pandemic are beginning to reopen.

Retail stores, restaurants and salons among those able to reopen

Seble Isaac, owner of Tiramisu Bistro on 124th Street, changed her business model to adapt to the new reality post the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sam Martin/CBC)

When Seble Isaac opened the doors of the Tiramisu Bistro Thursday morning for the first time in nearly two months, she was surprised that even a handful of customers trickled in.

"Even though we are open, we know that people are not feeling completely safe," Isaac said. "The morning was good but there is still a lot of hesitancy."

The 124th Street restaurant was one many businesses in Edmonton to open during the first phase of the province's COVID-19 relaunch plan. Retail stores, restaurants and salons, daycares, art galleries, museums, summer camps and farmers market are all eligible to reopen.

For Isaac, closing was a wake-up call.

While she used the time to renovate her nine-year-old cafe, she also wondered what the world was going to look like afterwards.

"How do you go back to business? Do you just wait for customers to come in, what they were doing before? That isn't going to happen very soon here."

So she is changing her business model, adding a grocery market to her space with a pick up window.

Isaac says she can't see the restaurant scene returning to what it was. 

"I've always been optimistic. And really just the restaurant scene alone, I can't see it. Before we would have line ups out the door and I don't see that coming soon."

"It's uncertain but we're happy to open. We don't want to wait because there will be so many glitches that you have to learn from these few days. So we are taking all the precautions at this time and see how people respond and will adjust as we go. Nothing is set in stone."

Hair salon owner Christina Dominelli styles client Jenn Obrowosky's hair Thursday as Alberta eases restrictions on businesses during the COVID-19 crisis. (David Bajer/CBC)

"Ready to come back'

Hair salon owner Christina Dominelli also welcomed her first clients Thursday.

"We felt ready to come back," Dominelli said. "It was a team decision."

And it didn't take long for appointments to fill up.

"We are definitely booked into July. It's like solid. We're happy about that," she said.

The large 124th Street salon has two floors so physical distancing won't be a problem. Other measures such as one guest at a time per stylist, COVID-19 symptom checks and limiting personal items that can be brought into the space will help keep staff and clients safe, Dominelli said.

Her first client, Jenn Oborowsky, couldn't wait to return.

"I'm really happy to have some normalcy," Oborowsky said. "And of course the roots need to be touched up. It's time."

Cleaning crews use disinfectant spray at Woodshed Burgers on 124th Street. (Peter Evans/CBC)

'Tough balance'

The large, inviting doors at Woodshed Burgers also swung open Thursday for what will likely be a different-looking lunchtime service.

"How do you create that warm and welcome feeling while also making sure that everybody's safe?" asked owner Paul Shufelt, who worked alongside cleaning crews last Saturday to sanitize his 124th Street burger joint.

"Where's the line between making it feel like a hospital and then providing some hospitality?"

The Stage 1 reopening, which was announced by the provincial government Wednesday, doesn't mean his popular burger joint is going to feel like it did before the pandemic.

New rules laid out by the province limiting restaurants and cafes to 50 per cent capacity saw seats drop from 48 to 20. 

"One of our mantras is to make people feel warm and welcome and we want to create that environment," he said. 

"How do you do that wearing a mask, gloves and perhaps even going to the length of scanning someone's forehead to take their temperature … so really, a tough balance."

For Shufelt, the relaunch is an encouraging first step, one he said can't be taken for granted. 

"There's got to be a lot of trust from the community on us to do our part to keep the community safe, and trust on our part on the community to do the right thing, if they aren't feeling 100 per cent to not be out in public, and not impact others and make this worse for everyone," he said. 

Dentist Dr. William Chin greets patients in full hazmat suit and face shield. (David Bajer/CBC)

While dentists have been allowed to offer their services prior to Thursday, especially for emergencies, many waited for restrictions on the rest of the economy to ease.

Norwood Dental Centre is preparing to open Tuesday, when dentist visits will enter a new era, said office manager Amanda Nielsen.

"We've always prided ourselves​ on being super warm, super friendly, super welcoming and it does create a different effect when you come in and there's the Plexiglass and staff is fully donned in PPE," Nielsen said.

Nielsen's husband, Dr. William Chin, will be dressed in hazmat suit with cuffs and hood, and a face shield.

Upon entering, patients will be screened for symptoms and asked to wear face masks until they're told to open wide. Appointments will be staggered and the parking lot is the new waiting room. 

'Look with your eyes' 

West Edmonton Mall opened Thursday but the shopping experience inside will be markedly different.

Security officers will ensure customers maintain physical distancing and signs throughout the mall will keep shoppers going in one direction.

The PA system will remind customers of the rules every 15 minutes.

Capacity will be reduced to 30 to 50 per cent in the coming weeks, said general manager Danielle Woo.

Everyone needs a little retail therapy after the past few weeks.- Danielle Woo

"We're going to have people counting people as they come in."

Customer service staff will be posted at each entrance to ensure shoppers know how to browse the mall safely.

Frontline staff at the mall will wear protective equipment. Masks are not mandatory for shoppers but are strongly encouraged, Woo said. 

"I think there will definitely be a push to look with your eyes and don't touch the merchandise as much," Woo said. 

About half of the stores at the mega-mall opened for business on Thursday and more are expected to do the same on the weekend. Woo expects all of the stores will swing open their doors by the end of the month. The mini-golf course is open but the major attractions remain closed.

"I do expect to see a lot of people coming to the mall. Everyone needs a little retail therapy after the past few weeks," Woo said. 

The province's top doctor says it is up to all Albertans to continue to practice physical distancing and follow health guidelines as Alberta moves into Stage 1 of the relaunch strategy. 1:42

'A very fragile state'

Christina Gray, NDP MLA for Edmonton-Mill Woods, said the relaunch has been rushed and reopening could come at a cost to small business.  

"It really seems as though businesses and the government have been working backwards from a date and rushing to try and get everything organized," Gray said in an interview Thursday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

Cash-strapped operators, many that have been shuttered for months, are having to spend to restock shelves, rehire staff and purchase protective equipment. Some are still struggling to make rent, insurance and utility payments, she said. 

New health guidelines have added a further strain for small business, Gray said. 

She said the province failed to consult with specific industries, such as hair salons and restaurants, about their concerns around maintaining safe and healthy work environments.

Some business owners feel pressure to reopen but are anxious about returning to work, she said. 

"The guidelines that the government is released are vague, and include nonbinding language like 'you could consider' something," she said. "When it comes to health and safety measures and what somebody should or shouldn't do, nobody wants that."

Finding a balance

Premier Jason Kenney told the media Wednesday not everyone is happy with the province's decision to get the economy rolling again. 

"I know for some folks this will feel like we're moving too fast, and for others, we're moving too slowly," Kenney said.   

"At every single step, these decisions are being guided by data and by the best scientific and public health advice available."

Edmonton's Royal Alberta Museum is reopening Saturday while the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology will open May 22. Visitors must pre-book tickets online and capacity will be limited, the province announced Thursday. 

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