Restaurants and coffee shops in Port Alberni were full of people on Wednesday morning as B.C.’s provincial health officer eased COVID-19 restrictions after a six-week clampdown designed to halt rising COVID-19 case numbers.
The news couldn’t come soon enough for Heather Welsh and her team of more than 20 employees at Alberni Brewing Company.
A brand new business, Alberni Brewing had been open for less than a week when the so-called COVID-19 circuit-breaker rules came into effect. “We opened March 24. When the circuit breaker happened we had to shut everything down and pivot on our toes,” said Welsh, who owns the new brew pub along with kitchen manager Yvan St. Onge.
“We had to put utensils down and build the patios. In the meantime we had to rely on takeaway.”
She commended the community for supporting the new business by ordering takeout (takeaway) and growlers of beer. She thanked the staff for quickly adapting from full-time work to however they were needed. The brew pub reopened its indoor seating area as soon as the announcement was made on Tuesday.
“We prepared ourselves to open; we did a deep clean inside, set the tables up for social distancing. It’s strange times but we’re excited to see people back inside.”
Kayley Pitts, general manager at Boston Pizza, couldn’t stop grinning on Thursday as she talked about the end of the circuit-breaker. “I’m very happy,” she said. The restaurant spent the first five days after the COVID-19 circuit-breaker restrictions came into effect concentrating on takeout and delivery. The See Group of Companies loaned them tents so they could set up an outdoor family patio (their existing patio is only for 19 years and up), and they added artificial turf and lighting.
“Between the two patios we had 19 tables, which was amazing. I was very impressed with our sales with just the two patios being open.”
Boston Pizza waited until the official announcement, but Pitts said they were ready to welcome people inside right away. “We scheduled for it thinking we would be able to (open). Our staff have been amazing, we couldn’t do it without them.”
She, like other restaurant owners, gave a shout out to the customers who helped keep them in business. “We want to thank all our customers for sticking out with us. We appreciate people’s support.”
Two B.C. Hockey League teams—Nanaimo Clippers and Cowichan Capitals—ordered meals from Boston Pizza throughout their pod season at the Alberni Valley Multiplex, and that contributed to the restaurant’s success too, Pitts said.
She has a patio permit for the family patio until Oct. 31 and intends to keep it open as long as possible.
Katinna Savard, who along with her husband J.J. Savard bought Smitty’s Restaurant four years ago, said the community has really helped the food and beverage industry stay alive in the Alberni Valley.
“It’s pretty amazing. I feel fortunate that we’re in a smaller town and smaller community,” she said. “Our customers care and they went the extra mile for us. They made sure we would be OK.”
There were customers that donated tables and umbrellas so Smitty’s could create an eight-table outdoor patio. “Being here for 40 years…they’re not just our customers, they’re our friends and family.”
Savard also said the staff at Smitty’s have helped carry the business forward during the coronavirus pandemic and all it has brought. “They’ve been really accommodating. Everybody did what they had to do to get through it.”
Carol Anne Phillips from Steampunk Café and Coffee House was happy to be able to open her seating area on Wednesday morning, but said it was disconcerting to all of a sudden have so many people inside the café.
“I’m super excited to have people back in,” she said. “It was definitely overwhelming the number of people that came in this morning, but I appreciate it.”
Steampunk has nine tables indoors, some of them two-seaters and some of them a little larger. Phillips said being able to open up her indoor seating again “is going to allow us to survive the summer.”
She just hopes the numbers of COVID-19 cases stay low, so B.C. won’t be threatened with another circuit-breaker closure. “I don’t want to get shut down again.”
The province is phasing in its reopening plan. The first of four stages started May 25, while further stages will depend on coronavirus infection rates and hospitalizations remaining stable. Rules for indoor dining and fitness places have returned to what they were before the “circuit breaker” restrictions took effect at the end of March, with dining and liquor service until 10 p.m. If coronavirus infection rates continue to fall and vaccination rates to rise, that would extend to midnight as early as June 15.
Many restaurants in the Alberni Valley are already adjusting their hours of operation to 10 p.m.
— With files from Tom Fletcher, Black Press Media
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