New Brunswick

Some Saint John businesses reluctant to fully open, despite green light

When Vanessa Duncan looks around the uptown neighbourhood that's home to her business, Rogue Coffee, she hardly ever sees a soul. "The uptown is dead," she declares. "If I were to open my doors, I would lose money." 

Premier Blaine Higgs says it's time for New Brunswickers to spend money in the province

Co-owners Shawn Verner and Mike McPartland outside their Prince William Street pub, which is currently limited to take-out only. (Submitted by Shawn Verner)

When Vanessa Duncan looks around the uptown neighbourhood that's home to her business, Rogue Coffee, she hardly ever sees a soul.

"The uptown is dead," she declares. "If I were to open my doors, I would lose money." 

That's why she and her husband, Mike, have decided to keep their doors closed for a while longer while they sort out the logistics of opening post-COVID-19 amid all of the public health requirements. 

"Our shop wouldn't be able to open because it's far too small, and I couldn't open my doors to serve two people inside my store. That doesn't make good economic sense at all."

Duncan said they considered opening the garage door and serving people in the alley. 

"That would be on a beautiful day. Who do you think's going to come down there on a pouring day?"

She said Rogue Coffee was forced to close its doors and "pivot" during the pandemic. Overnight, it became an online store with delivery.

Outside Rogue Coffee in Uptown Saint John. (Discover Saint John)

The Duncans have decided not to rush back into business as it used to be until they're certain they can make a go of it — and that likely won't be until the middle of June. 

Rogue Coffee isn't alone in its measured pace. 

Shawn Verner, co-owner of the Cask and Kettle, has decided to maintain the status quo for two reasons. 

First, he has to go through all of the material provided by the province and ensure the pub is following all of the guidelines. He said it takes time to amass the masks, hand sanitizer and Plexiglas, and to ensure the staff is properly trained. 

"So that takes time. We're also really taking our time making sure that we can get as many people as possible into the space, because that's what's gonna be do or die here."

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Prince William Street pub shut down completely before reopening for takeout only through its street-front window. 

"It's really about how we can maximize our space. We'll make sure we can get as many people as possible because you're going to need to get as much revenue as you can over the summer and fall."

Whether that many people will feel comfortable enough to eat inside a restaurant is the unknown, said Verner. 

"I've been driving around and it doesn't look like there's a huge demand for it right now." 

He said he's also talked to family and friends who aren't yet keen to venture out. 

Verner said the normally vibrant uptown has been eerily quiet over the last couple of months. 

"It's literally like night and day. It's so surreal to me sometimes, because I'm there a lot ... and to see such quiet streets, it blows my mind."

The third floor of Brunswick Square, which used to house Colwells, remained completely shut down Wednesday. (Julia Wright / CBC)

In nearby Brunswick Square, stores are slowly beginning to reopen. On Wednesday, the previously shut-down second level had three open stores, while the first level saw one more store open, in addition to the two that remained open throughout the state of emergency. The lower escalator was also in service for the first time in weeks. 

On Wednesday, Premier Blaine Higgs said it was "absolutely" time to encourage people to go out and buy and dine inside restaurants — as long as they follow the rules set out by Public Health.

"I mean, now is the time for New Brunswickers to support New Brunswickers, and it's more than talking about. It's actually an action. And so yeah, if you've been putting off a purchase and you're able to do that, support your local retailer and let's get the economy moving."

Verner hopes to be open by late next week, but he wonders what impact physical distancing, masks, and limited social bubbles will have on his business. After all, part of the ambience of an Irish pub is that it's loud, crowded and boisterous. 

He suspects the music will have to be turned down for servers to be able to communicate with masks from a distance. 

I want to ease out of it the way I eased into it — in a more cautionary way.- Anne McShane

"That's why we're taking our time," said Verner. "How do you make it as safe as possible but still keep the atmosphere which we're known for? And I don't honestly know."

Luc Erjavec, the vice-president of the Atlantic division of Restaurants Canada, said restaurants have been particularly hard hit during the pandemic. And similarly, they'll have a particularly tough time getting back on their feet. 

He said opening isn't as simple as turning on the lights and setting a few tables. Owners have to ensure they comply with all of the government regulations and that staff is properly trained to enforce the new rules. Many will have to make physical changes to their premises, and all will have to find masks, hand sanitizer, Plexiglass and enough staff to work. 

"It's a juggling act," he said. 

And with reduced dining room capacity, the main goal of restaurants will be to keep their heads above water, while the world waits for a vaccine and a return to some semblance of normalcy. 

"Most are just trying to open and not lose too much," said Erjavec. "You're not going to make a huge profit at this time."

Most, he said, will be lucky to break even. 

Feeling good about the status quo

Anne McShane, who owns and operates the Feel Good Store in uptown Saint John, initially closed in March, a few days before the state of emergency, but then embraced curbside pickup and delivery. 

Although the province's COVID-19 recovery plan allows her to open, she's decided to continue her current business model for a while longer. 

The only change she's made recently is to add a counter in the doorway. 

"So yeah, it's still not open to walk-ins, but a little more human interaction," said McShane. 

"We're pretty small in here and we have a lot of really small products that people like to handle. So it was a difficult thing to picture how to control that for safety for everyone," she said. 

Anne McShane, owner of the Feel Good Store, uses a mask and long pole to make her curbside deliveries. (Submitted/Anne McShane)

"I'm just taking it slow and being cautious."

She recalls the weeks that led up to the state of emergency. With the size of her store, people were shopping in very close quarters as the virus continued to wreak havoc on the world. 

"And at the time I was thinking, 'This is difficult to control without me policing it constantly,' which would take away everything from what the nature of the store is … I couldn't envision how to be my store and be this at the same time.

"I'm not in a hurry to get back to that. I want to ease out of it the way I eased into it — in a more cautionary way."

McShane also knows that the province could slip back into the restrictions that were initially imposed in March.

"So you know, you're fearful of making too much investment to completely change a process ... if we're going to close back up again."

A familiar story

Nancy Tissington, the executive director of Uptown Saint John, said she's hearing that same message from a lot of her members. 

"They've already pivoted once and it's working. They're not really sure about pushing to open. We're hearing that a lot," she said.

And some are waiting to see if customers return in large enough numbers to warrant them reopening. 

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