Rainy start to car-free weekends on Dundas Place

Grace Restaurant said business was great Friday night. It rained or threatened to rain for the rest of the weekend.

Dundas Place is going car-free Friday and Saturday night, and during the day Sunday

There were signs along the flex street, reminding people the space is shared and to keep physical distance. (Liny Lamberink/CBC London)

Mother Nature didn't provide optimal weather for the first weekend of street closures on Dundas Place.

Around noon Sunday, a few dozen people were walking up and down the flex street. It's being closed to vehicle traffic during the day Sundays, and on Friday and Saturday evenings, for the month of August.

Although it rained or threatened to rain for much of Saturday evening and Sunday, the owner of Grace Restaurant, Angela Murphy, said Friday was a great night.  

"We put some extra tables out in the street, the flex street was great, tons of people enjoying a walk through downtown," she said.

The following evening, patrons were driven away by rolling thunder and steady rain.

Angela Murphy, who owns Grace Restaurant, set up a pop-up version of Grace Pantry in the street Sunday. (Sofia Rodriguez/CBC)

Murphy said most of her potential customers declined to head indoors, despite being allowed to have 50 people inside a restaurant establishment under the province's Stage 3 reopening framework.

"We were ready to have people inside. We've got barriers, all kinds of protocols for sanitization, so I think people just are not ready yet and that's fine," said Murphy. "Luckily it's not raining yet here today."

Grace Restaurant set up a pop-up version of its pantry Sunday, offering wines, cinnamon buns and fresh fruits and vegetables, and a spot to sit, in the street. The pantry concept began as a response to the pandemic shut down, allowing customers to buy groceries, merchandise and beverages online, and has since developed a "loyal following" said Murphy.

Coffee Culture, Scots Corner and Fitzrays had their sidewalk and parking spot patios up and running, but didn't move them into the street itself. Thaifoon and a few other restaurants had sections on the sidewalk cordoned off for patio space, but didn't have seating set up.

"Guests that come, usually for dining on the weekends, they're all doing take out because they're not comfortable just yet, patio or no patio," said Fouzan Beg, Thaifoon's owner and operator.

He doesn't plan to use the extra street space, but said the vehicle closure is a good initiative and suggested starting it earlier Fridays and Saturdays to coincide with when the dinner rush begins.

Grace Restaurant made use of the flex street Sunday by opening a pop-up version of its pantry, selling cinnamon buns, wines and fresh fruits and vegetables, among other things. (Liny Lamberink/CBC London)

Lots of moving parts

"It's a little quieter than I would have thought, on a Sunday," said Janet Lowe. She and Alan Lowe are moving to Tillsonburg from Mississauga, and spent the weekend visiting the Middlesex-London region.

"I think the street looks really nice and once there's more people and more stands … the street could be nice."

Closing streets to vehicle traffic is an idea that's been implemented in other cities across the province as a way to support economic recovery in the face of COVID-19 losses. There has been pressure for London to do same for weeks.

"There's a lot of moving parts," said Savannah Sewell, the manager of Dundas Place.  "We needed to touch base with all the businesses. Come up with a plan. Talk about safety."

Seeing patios bustling on Friday, said Sewell, was something special.

"I want people to feel connected to their community and hope that they can start to do that. Whether that's through the physical part of it, like exercising or walking or riding your bike or reminding yourself of some of the shops down here and some of the businesses that are here as well, because that's a huge part of this community."

Dundas Place will go car-free Fridays and Saturdays from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.