Winnipeg restaurant and bar patios ponder cold-weather service throughout pandemic winter
City studying fire-safety implications; province may have public health concerns, as well
The pandemic has some Winnipeg restaurants pondering what used to be unthinkable in one of Canada's coldest winter cities— extending patio season well into the months that end with brrrrr.
Outdoor patios have proven to be a vital revenue source for restaurants and bars during a summer when indoor seating has been limited by physical distancing requirements.
Some are now considering keeping patio service going well past Thanksgiving and even into the winter, provided the city and province are cool with cold-weather health-and-safety implications.
"I've always wanted to have a year-round patio because Winnipeg is winter half of the year. I think it's very important to embrace the winter," said Mark Turner, owner of Amsterdam Tea Room & Bar at the edge of Old Market Square in Winnipeg's Exchange District.
Turner opened Amsterdam's sidewalk patio in 2018 and kept it going the past two falls into October by providing blankets to customers on colder days.
That's no longer possible, thanks to the pandemic. Turner is now contemplating the use of heaters and retractable awnings to complement the plexiglass dividers he installed this summer to prevent the spread of COVID-19 between tables.
"You could sit out in like -10, -15 weather, so long as it's not too much," Turner said. "That would also allow us to tie into events like Festival du Voyageur. A lot of people I speak to say they're ready for it, especially now when people prefer to sit outside. They can just dress for the weather."
As it stands, Winnipeg patios can not operate year round.
Business-friendly pandemic provisions that allowed temporary patios to spring up in Winnipeg are slated to expire on Oct. 13. Permanent patios are supposed to close after Halloween.
There also may be fire-safety considerations involved in placing heaters on patios. The City of Winnipeg is in the process of figuring out how it would regulate all-weather patios, or even whether it should.
"The city is exploring the option right now and considering what the requirements would be," Winnipeg spokesperson Kalen Qually said in a statement.
The mayor's office supports the idea of providing restaurants with more flexibility, but stopped short of promising year-round patio service.
"The temporary patio process has already been extended a number of times and extending it further is an option that could help some businesses," said Jeremy Davis, communications director for Mayor Brian Bowman, in a statement on Tuesday.
"However, the addition of portable heaters adds an element of fire safety which the public service and the fire department are currently reviewing."
There are also public-health challenges involved in all-weather patios. If tables are enclosed by awnings or plastic sheeting, the movement of air could be restricted to some degree.
Manitoba's chief public health officer said the province will have to be clear about what constitutes a patio in the winter.
"When we talk about a patio, we expect it to be just that: a predominance of outdoor air, so not enclosed," Dr. Brent Roussin said during a news conference on Sept. 8. "If that becomes an issue, we'll certainly have to clarify."
Right now, it doesn't matter— restaurants are required to keep tables two metres apart both indoors and outside, unless dividers are installed between tables.
Manitoba's premier said he's aware restaurants could use some help right now.
"With the patio seasons sadly going to come to an end pretty soon, there's going to be challenges in the restaurant industry and we know that," Brian Pallister said on Monday.
Allowances for winter patio service has been made in a number of Canadian cities, including Ottawa and Toronto.
Fire-safety and health regulations are not the only barrier to all-weather patio service. It's not clear how many customers will choose to sit outdoors in subzero weather.
Brad Chute, co-founder of The Beer Can, said he would like to keep his pandemic pop-up patio on Main Street open as long as people keep coming.
"I'm guilty of this as much as any Winnipegger in that 10 degrees in April feels warm as can be, but 10 degrees in September is chilly," said Chute, who installed six outdoor heaters at The Beer Can last week and is adding hot drinks to the menu.
"Winnipeggers acclimate to the winter. You know, come February, when it's the coldest it ever is, people happily sit outside at Festival [du Voyageur]," Chute said.
"As people realize that they're tougher than they think and they get more acclimated to the weather, they'll put on some clothes and come sit outside."