The Merchant General Store held its grand opening March 12 only to shutter March 18. The business shifted to offer essential groceries and reopened May 1. (Courtesy Sandy Black)

Victoria program helps businesses shift swiftly in wake of COVID-19

Bring Back Victoria helps businesses open patios, create welcoming, safe spaces for customers

Local businesses credit a City of Victoria program with enabling swift shifts in services to help foster success despite a worldwide pandemic.

Launched June 8, the Build Back Victoria program was created to support businesses during the reopening and recovery phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. It provides several temporary initiatives to allow businesses to create space on sidewalks, streets, parking spaces, and in plazas and parks to expand their footprint to safely conduct commercial activities.

In mid-March the health authority set out closures across the province to combat the spread of the new coronavirus.

READ ALSO: Pedestrian advocate says pandemic has paved way for more walkable communities

For Sandy Black, that meant a grand opening and sudden closure of the Merchant General Store within a week. After working with Island Health and bringing in some ‘essentials’ including milk, butter and eggs the shop reopened May 1.

Similarly Mesa Restaurant in Fernwood closed for a bout a week to adapt to new regulations, that included a shift to takeout and came at a cost to the bottom line.

“Sales were OK, still down considerably, until restaurants were given the go ahead to reopen with social distancing measures; which in our case didn’t really apply to the space very well,” said owner Neil Davis. Provincial distancing requirements mean only two tables inside and the Build Back Victoria program was crucial to survival. Now with 30 seats in Fernwood square, staff are back and Mesa is open five days a week.

“It has given us a chance to plan for what we might be able to do in the fall and winter months. It has been a welcome lifeline for businesses such as ours,” Davis said.

While they lament the loss of cruise ship traffic, cross-border tourists, downtown office workers and high traffic events, others are stepping up, Black said.

READ ALSO: Cancelled cruise ships costs Victoria more than $130 million

“What we are seeing are our wonderful locals, Lower Mainland guests and tourists from Alberta, Saskatchewan and others parts of Canada. Many of these folks have never been to Victoria or haven’t been downtown for years. This program puts in place an improved experience for those guests that are here and hopefully has created a new driver to help the local businesses generate a little more revenue than they otherwise would have and allow all of us to get through this thing together.”

With fears of a fall return of COVID-19, Davis feels the reactions of society and governing bodies are key.

“I don’t think we are out of the woods yet and a lot of people in the industry are viewing this as a transitional shift within food service in general. The industry already had flaws and COVID-19 brought them to light. I would hope that we can get really good at tracking outbreaks so that areas could thrive without restrictions, and then shut down completely and short term if an outbreak does occur.”

Black feels the next step is to invest in more permanent hard landscaping, appropriate planters, seating areas and a more programmed approach to entertainment. “When tourism comes back in whatever form it comes back in we also need to ensure that businesses in the downtown core are not missed,” he said. “The ultimate goal would be that through design and programming the entire area will become a vibrant, exciting and busy hub attracting locals to enjoy their downtown and all tourists to experience the ‘must see’ old town stroll.”

The Business Hub at the City of Victoria – the primary contact to receive applications and works alongside the transportation, engineer and parks departments – received more than 50 applications for the Build Back Victoria program within its first month.


 

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