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May. 17, 2021 | Monday
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Town extends popular Queen Street patio program
Lord Mayor Betty Disero said expanded patios can’t stay forever, but that the town should consider its vision for Queen Street 10 to 15 years from now. (File/Richard Harley)

Tourism sector still a long way from recovery, Chamber says

Evan Saunders
The Lake Report

After deliberating the pros and cons of having enlarged patios pushing out onto Queen Street, town council has extended the popular program until Jan. 1, 2022.

The program will be reviewed in December 2021 to determine whether it is still needed as COVID recovery could take until 2026, a federal agency says.

"When (restaurants) are allowed to open, the extra outdoor space helps immensely,” Lord Mayor Betty Disero said in an interview Tuesday. 

“It gives them extra space to make up a little bit of what they’re losing. I think it will really help the restaurants. We want to help them as best as we can to try and recover.” 

Speaking at Monday's virtual committee of the whole meeting, Eduardo Lafforgue, president of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce, called the program an essential tool to aid the recovery of the tourism and service sector in NOTL.  

“We need a clear plan by the Town of NOTL for restaurants to be ready for patios to reopen,” he said. “And we need to avoid additional costs that will delay the recovery.” 

Restaurants have incurred large costs and debt throughout the pandemic by updating their work environments and staff on new protocols, providing PPE in various forms, and investing in upgraded patios just to be told they need to close their doors again.  

Lafforgue framed the lack of a cohesive response and plan for businesses as a cycle of “open, spend, close, repeat.” 

He noted the federal tourism agency, Destination Canada, published data determining the time frame of economic recovery for the country’s tourism industry. Canada is on track for the worst scenario of three presented by the agency, with the border set to reopen in October 2021, causing the tourism sector to earn only 40 per cent of the revenues that it saw  in 2019.  

And even if the border opens in the next eight months, the return to normal will be much further away, Destination Canada predicts. In that case, a return to 2019 revenue levels might not be seen until 2026.  

In lieu of a strong international tourism sector, towns like NOTL will rely on support from Canadians looking for a place to escape as COVID restrictions continue. And it is in due part to this potential for domestic travel that Lafforgue was more optimistic about NOTL’s prospects. 

“For Niagara-on-the-Lake, we are lucky to be close to a major city and we are lucky to be a short-haul destination. So, we are hoping for us that (the recovery) is going to be in 2024 or at the beginning of 2025.” 

A short-haul destination is a vacation area that a large majority of people can access through a short drive. NOTL’s proximity to the GTA (and to Buffalo, once the border reopens) may end up being one of its strongest assets in recovery as other tourist destinations struggle to welcome international travellers.

The mayor shared Lafforgue's optimism, but stressed that health and safety come first. 

“Niagara-on-the-Lake is positioned as a great destination for people within our province. But they should come when it is appropriate to do so, and allow us at this time to work on recovery and getting over the COVID pandemic," Disero said.

"As the province starts to open a little later on this year, that’s when we will welcome them back with open arms,” she told The Lake Report.  

The mayor also emphasized that this is not a long-term decision and that patio owners shouldn’t expect to have extended patios in perpetuity, particularly along Queen Street.  

“I don’t think that’s what we want Queen Street to look like long-term,” she said.  

“With recovery, we really want to look at what will lead us through the next 20 years, in terms of infrastructure improvements. We’re doing that with Virgil, with Glendale. So, let’s look at Queen Street.” 

But, until at least next December when the program is reviewed, NOTL residents and visitors can expect a bustling patio season for the town once the province allows restaurants to reopen.