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Rush order

Jody Vance: We have very little time to save as many restaurants as we can. Here’s one idea.
It’ll have to be thinner, but this will be a lifeline. (Paul McKinnon /

With BC’s COVID-19 numbers in the “sweet spot” according to Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry — we are just days away from entering Phase 2 of our pandemic.

It is remarkably good news that our healthcare facilities have been protected and fortified over these crazy few months, and that our frontline healthcare workers are stocking up and staying prepared for a possible next wave. And so we find ourselves ready to dip our toes into a cautious, yet urgent, re-opening of our economy.

With unprecedented unemployment, we can point to a few industries who are the hardest hit. Restaurants are close to — maybe at — the top of that list.

Right now, restauranteurs are precariously perched between survival or shuttering. These next few months will be make-or-break. Economists speculate that by fall, we might have 75% of small restaurants still open. Next year at this time, the number becomes far worse — a staggering 50 to 75% of restaurants are predicted to close forever. Politicians must act now on behalf of the places that are the foundation of our neighbourhoods.

Right now, restauranteurs are precariously perched between survival or shuttering. These next few months will be make-or-break.

We must adapt to this new challenge by saying goodbye to deep dive polls, report-backs and public hearings. We need a more industry-involved solution to the immediate problems.

The bottom line on physical distancing is S P A C E. Ask any restaurant owner what the most expensive part of their business is and they’ll all tell you the same thing: space. Indoor AND outdoor.

It’s time to help them with the math on their path to re-opening. A huge portion of the almost half million unemployed in this province are food and service and restaurant workers. All levels of government have an opportunity to help them – and also, create spaces to safely gather by opening up outside spaces for safe food and drink service.

So: let’s talk patios.

Rarely has an opportunity presented itself whereby our leaders could do something with a few simple key strokes, with zero dollars laid out, whose main byproduct is raising the spirits and improve mental health for citizens, while helping to save restaurants.

The Middle here is that we punt "process."

If our municipal and provincial politicians simply ease, or completely remove, restrictions on patio permitting effective immediately, restauranteurs could be free to find innovative ways to adhere to public health guidelines for patrons and staff and provide dining experiences with plenty of physical distancing.

The Middle here is that we punt "process." We shelve bureaucratic red tape in permitting and costs per square foot. Instead, focus on best possible outcomes. Set simple parameters and let restaurant owners find what works.

Yes, some small few will attempt to take advantage of this wild-west approach. So — up front — make the punishment for that known. It’s severe and permanent. Break big rules and your business is dust. Pull all licenses, permanently if necessary.

But we have to do something, right now. Because over these next few months, outdoor dining will be the safest option to meet budgets and give even an outside chance of making it to the fall.

Between now and October, we experience gorgeous “why-we-live-here” weather. It is, quite literally patio season. For the rest of May through September, there’s a chance for these businesses to find their footing after such an abrupt slam.

They’ve simply got to make hay while the sun shines. Because there’s no way of avoiding fall and winter. On the coast, we will be socked in and soggy. Elsewhere in BC, the temperature will drop and snow will fall. With flu season looming, few will choose to head inside a restaurant with 1/2 capacity for food.

By my math, restaurant owners have four months to make enough money to survive the winter.

BC has had success in flattening the curve. Now it’s time for our leaders help small business survive the curve. Let restaurants become drive-ins. Let takeout hit the plaza of public spaces, yes with beer and wine, and put up only signs the ask for patrons to act responsibly — beside appropriate garbage and recycle bins. That’s it.

By my math, restaurant owners have four months to make enough money to survive the winter.

Eight weeks into a pandemic, it’s safe to say the bulk of British Columbians can follow guidelines. We’ve earned the chance to prove that we can behave like grown ups.

Whether it’s restaurant take out, a patio attached to an establishment, in any public plaza or the parking lot transformed to an outdoor dining room down the way — we can make this happen.

If you build it, they will come. Citizens are desperately searching for outdoor spaces where it’s safe to gather. Meanwhile, restaurants are searching for spaces to safely serve them.

Ask restaurant owners what they need. Rip up the old process. Be innovative.

Here we are at the moment of opportunity. There’s no bailout here, just a pair of scissors to cut through red tape. No bylaw fee, extra charge, or lineup for permits. Just Do It.

Ask restaurant owners what they need. Rip up the old process. Be innovative. There’s no time for overthinking or navel gazing.

Restauranteurs need a two click solution. An email that says get creative and stay safe. Give them the GREEN LIGHT.

These places are the foundation of our communities, our meeting places. We’ve lost enough BC small businesses to financial struggle prior to this pandemic. It’s time to find a way to protect those still fighting the good fight.

UPDATE: As reported by Rob Shaw, B.C. restaurants will be able to purchase liquor at wholesale prices and get expedited provincial approval for expanded outdoor liquor service. The provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, has said expanded restaurant seating outdoors is preferable because it is harder to transmit COVID-19 outside.

Jody Vance is a born and raised Vancouverite who’s spent 30 years in both local and national media. The first woman in the history of Canadian TV to host her own sports show in primetime, since 2011 she’s been working in both TV and radio covering news and current affairs.