New Brunswick

Saint Andrews to close part of Water Street to help businesses

With restaurants forced to cut seating by half — and consumers not dining out like they used to — these are tough times for restaurants. 

Restaurants says consumer confidence seems high about dining out

With restaurants forced to cut seating by half — and consumers not dining out like they used to — these are tough times for restaurants. 

That's why most restaurants on Saint Andrews' scenic waterfront are welcoming a new summer pilot program. 

The Town of Saint Andrews will close one lane of traffic along three blocks of Water Street "to help mitigate the negative consequences of COVID-19," explained Mayor Doug Naish. 

Businesses will spill onto the sidewalk and pedestrians will be able to spill into the closed lane of traffic.

Naish said the move will particularly help restaurants by allowing them to "recoup some of that profit margin that you're losing by not having as many customers inside your restaurant."

The general manager of the Kennedy Inn said the move is welcome news for her establishment. 

Normally, the inn's restaurant can accommodate up to 100 customers, but physical distancing requirements has reduced that to 40. 

The restaurant at the Kennedy Inn will be able to add 12 seats during a summer-long pilot project. (Kennedy Inn)

"This will certainly help us because we can add another 12 seats," said Cindy Ruest. 

"That will help us not turn guests away." 

And that's exactly what happened on Saturday, which was unexpectedly busy in the seaside town. 

"It was certainly better than we thought it would be," said Ruest. 

While dining statistics aren't available, Restaurants Canada did ask owners about post-lockdown profitability.

Sixty-three per cent of 15,000 respondents said their restaurants are not profitable, said Luc Erjavec, the group's vice-president of the Atlantic division. Only 15 per cent said business is profitable. 

The president of the Saint Andrews Chamber of Commerce has been working with the town on the pilot project. 

Katy MacDonald said most Water Street businesses will benefit from the extra space. 

While restaurants can make up for some of the lost space inside, other businesses can set up tables outside to ensure shoppers are able to keep two metres apart while they browse. 

MacDonald hopes the move will lend "a festive kind of vibe" to the downtown.

The Town of Saint Andrews is making traffic one-way in part of its downtown to allow businesses to use the sidewalk, and for more space for physical distancing, this summer, beginning on June 26. (Gary Moore/CBC)

With so many events and festivals cancelled because of COVID-19, "we will be missing those opportunities to have that festive feel that we have for Canada Day and stuff like that," she said. 

"So we're hoping that by bringing more of our businesses outside, it'll recreate that feeling."

But not everyone will benefit from the plan. 

Rick Jackson, the manager at the Gables Restaurant, said his place will likely not set up any tables on the street. 

The restaurant, which has also cut its seating in half, already has a patio on the water side and setting up an additional outdoor dining area on the street just doesn't make any sense for them. 

"For us, it's not feasible, but it obviously makes sense for others," Jackson said. 

Consumer confidence

The question for restaurants is whether people feel confident enough to dine out. 

Ruest, the manager at the Kennedy Inn, said business at her restaurant is down about 40 per cent over last year — but they expected that. 

She said people are a lot less leery about dining out than when restaurants first opened several weeks ago. 

"At the beginning, everybody seems a little bit more cautious about following the rules and making sure that they weren't sitting where they shouldn't be and everything." 

Ruest said people seem "less stressed" about walking into a restaurant now. 

Part of that, she said, depends on how visible the precautions are. She said diners feel much more at ease when they walk in and see the staff wearing masks, and cleaning thoroughly between customers. 

While it instills confidence, she said it does take away the "coziness" of the place. 

"Because of all the signs, and the masks and the cleaning," Ruest said. "But we're trying to make it as normal as possible for people."

Jackson said customers at the Gables don't seem leery about dining out. 

"For the most part, I think they're really confident coming in," he said. 

Jackson said the staff's cleaning efforts usually increases their confidence. They're met at the door, offered hand sanitizer and asked questions for contact-tracing purposes before they're led to the table. 

And in a move counter to restaurant practice before COVID-19, customers stand near the table and wait while someone sanitizes it, even though the table has already been cleaned, washed and sanitized after the previous customers. It's important restaurant patrons see the cleaning take place.

The town is also stepping up with some additional cleaning measures, said MacDonald.

There are hand-sanitizing dispensers on light posts and "a disinfectant team that goes around spraying things down and keeping things clean," she said. 

Businesses will be allowed to spill onto the sidewalk along three blocks of Water Street this summer. (Town of Saint Andrews)

"It's actually taken some getting used to, but now I think I've adjusted to the fact that that's just our new normal," MacDonald said. "And it does kind of provide some sort of sense of security, I guess."

She said there are still a lot of visitors around town — but not exactly in the same pattern as other years. 

Several business people said last weekend was almost as busy as a normal summer weekend. 

But through the week, things really slow down, said MacDonald. 

"So it's definitely a different pattern to visitors coming," she said. 

"It's all New Brunswickers that we're seeing right now, I think. It's a lot of people who are taking day trips or weekend trips … and then going back to work through the week. That may change once the summer really comes upon us. But that's what we're seeing right now."

Naish hopes the pilot project will help Saint Andrews become a "prime destination" for New Brunswickers, who have been repeatedly encouraged by Premier Blaine Higgs to plan "staycations" this year. 

"We're all pretty optimistic that this is going to kick start our summer season," he said. 

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