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Tuesday, January 31, 2023
Open, closed, changed: NOTL businesses adapt to new reality

Niagara-on-the-Lake businesses are taking precautions and making changes – such as disinfecting more often and not accepting cash – to fight the spread of COVID-19.

Pharmacies, breweries, wineries, gyms and shops that remain open are all changing how they offer their services to the public to ensure residents and tourists are safe in the community.

COVID-19 has changed the public’s attitude when it comes to how they are spending their time and money in town. 

NOTL resident Terry Frawley comes down to Queen Street with his dog Saorise almost every day and can see how the virus has affected the town. 

“It’s very quiet. I noticed it Saturday afternoon,” Frawley said.

“The physicality has changed, people not touching, which is obviously the right thing to do right now. The human contact to this old Irishman is very important to me, but you can’t do that, so you understand and don’t do it.”

Premier Doug Ford on Tuesday morning ordered all bars and restaurants to close or move to takeout/delivery only. That forced businesses like Silversmith Brewing Company and Sandtrap Pub and Grill to immediately alter operations. And several bars and restaurants just opted to close for the time being.

The popular Sandtrap posted on social media that it is open for takeout for limited hours only, “however you will not be permitted in the  building.” Patrons can phone in their orders and staff will deliver to them in the parking lot.

Silversmith CEO Kyle Getty said that “between the government announcement and our social obligation to everyone’s safety, we’ve decided to close our tap room.”

“We are going to be doing retail bottles only, so we are still open for retail service through the front door and we’re working on a delivery model. If there’s a need we have the opportunity to provide beer to people, should they want it.”

The Virgil brewery will continue to produce product and maintain its “high standards of cleanliness and sanitizing things to the maximum.”

“This isn’t to be taken lightly. I’m very concerned about the long-term impacts to tourism in Niagara generally, not just for Silversmith,” Getty said.

He sees COVID-19 as “a massive blow to the income for all tourism-based industries in this area.”

“The only thing I can really impress on everybody is just to support your local small business,” Getty said. “Whether it be a brewery, a coffee shop, a bookstore or craft store, just support your local businesses.”

Eliminating cash sales, unless absolutely necessary, and handling all cash with gloves are some of the precautions taken by businesses like Brims & Things.

The Queen Street store has made available gloves and alcohol wipes for customers to use in store if they feel the need.

“We are doing the best we can,” Brims & Things employee Lynda Pecchia said. “We are looking out for them as much as they’re looking out for us. People need to look out for one another in these times.”

Customer traffic was definitely down last weekend, Pecchia said, but the shop was still seeing people from Toronto, Hamilton and the United States looking to get out of the house.  

Some customers have said that they are more inclined to come to Queen Street to shop because they’re able to walk outside, avoid crowded shops and many businesses are keeping their doors open to allow fresh air inside. 

Anita Bates, an employee at the Olde Tyme Candy Shoppe, said business has been “way down.”

“I think it’s going to get worse,” she said, noting the one good thing is there’s been a lot of local support.

St. Catharines residents Mandi Gould and Geoff Holmes are spending their time “getting out of the house while they can” by supporting local businesses.

“I think everybody could use a little support right now,” Gould said. “We’re being careful, you know, hand washing and using gloves on doors.”

“My YMCA closed and I’m a bit bummed about that, but it was bound to happen.”

Grape Escape Wine Tours co-owner and manager Richard Mell said March is typically the quietest month for his business, but he is taking steps to help combat the potential spread of COVID-19. 

“We’re suspending operations for a number of reasons but obviously most of the wineries seem to be closing,” Mell said. “We’re going to play it on a two-week basis. Between now and March 31 we will be suspending operations.”

“We really need a point where the wineries can reopen. Obviously without the wineries we have nowhere to go.”

Services offered by Grape Escape including tours, Wellness Escape classes and the escape room will be closed until the end of the month. 

“Things seem to be changing so quickly so that’s why we don’t want to commit to a shorter time or bigger time frame,” Mell said. “We feel like two weeks at a time is adequate to be able to make accurate assessments of where we need to be.”

Grape Escape is encouraging people to reschedule by offering an incentive, a bottle of VQA wine, as a “thank you for rescheduling” as opposed to cancelling.

“We in turn can go buy a bottle of wine from a local winery. So that supports them,” Mell said. “There are some people that are travelling from abroad and obviously just can’t reschedule, so we’ve reached a point where they will have to be credited back.”

Mell hopes it’s not too long before things return to normal.

“In my eyes, if people are going to be locked away for the next two to four weeks – as soon as the sun starts to shine and if they have been locked-up – I can see business potentially increasing for the summer season.”

He said the way through this situation is “together as a community.”

“Being a small community like we are, people will really look out for each other. I know we’ve tried to look out for others in the past so we hope it will pay-forward and come back to us,” Mell said.

The Scottish Loft in Niagara-on-the-Lake is now offering free delivery in Niagara for items over $20 before tax and will not be changing its hours of operation, said owner Simon Bentall. Orders in all areas of NOTL will be delivered daily while all other parts of Niagara will be delivered  Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Caroline Cellars’ front of house and event manager Justine Lakeit said the winery has closed its Farmhouse cafe and opted not to do takeout. The winery will remain open for purchases only through the wine boutique, but it is not offering tastings now due to extra sanitation required.

“We have also offered options on our online store for people to order online and pick up in store,” Lakeit said. “So if customers do really want to limit their interactions with others, they can order online and we can pack it up and just have it ready for them to pick up at their convenience.”

“We were hoping to operate as normal as usual for as long as we could especially with all of our local customers who are great to us during the winter months and slower months,” Lakeit said. “We really rely on and appreciate their business during the winter months so we wanted to stay open for them as long as we can.”

“If this happened in the middle of July it would have much more of an impact on our business. But if we know now that tourism will be slower in the upcoming months, we can staff accordingly and plan accordingly,” she said.

Laura Sentineal, co-owner of Sentineal Carriages, said the carriages are still operating, but staff are taking extra measures to lower risks.

“We have removed our blankets and are sanitizing the carriage in between guests. As always, our tours are private,” she said. 

“Overall, with our situation, it poses little risk to our guests and staff. However, I have made (working) voluntary for our staff,” Sentineal said.

She said it’s too early to tell how the pandemic will affect business. “As many businesses will tell you, March is not really a busy time anyway. We have had a few cancellations.”

She said she is hoping “this is all done” by May.

City Sight Seeing bus driver Steven Hsueh said some people are cancelling tours due to COVID-19, but last weekend it didn’t have much impact on his tour bus. 

“Because we are one of the few companies that still operates in Niagara Falls, we still get people. Not as many, but we still get people.”

Usually the bus hosts 50 people. It still had 44 on Sunday’s visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“Because of all the things happening I think things might start changing, especially this summer. I don’t think there is going to be a lot of tourists compared to previous years,” Hsueh said.

Niagara Fit owner Jaclyn Willms said her business is only running one-on-one classes right now, giving clients the option to take classes through video chat and has cancelled its Fitside lunch menu until April 6.

And the TD Niagara Jazz Festival has moved its “Jazzy-oke Sing-a-long Sundays” at Club 55 to March 29 from March 15 to avoid people sharing microphones.

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