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Open season: how Muskoka is helping businesses get patrons back on patios

·3 min read

Municipalities across Muskoka have waived permit costs and streamlined the application process for establishments to build temporary patios in an effort to aid in the economic recovery from COVID-19.

The provincial government gave restaurants and other food establishments the green light to reopen to guests for dining in, as part of its Phase 2 reopening. However, it has stipulated service can only take place outdoors to minimize the spread of coronavirus.

Noting the challenges that were presented for establishments with small patios, or none at all, the province also passed an order adjusting the process typical for building such structures. No longer do businesses have to pay for building permits — a fee of up to $360 — or apply for new liquor licenses (which are based on occupancy numbers).

“To boost the economy, this is one way we can speed it up and get rid of some of the red tape,” said Steve Watson, director of building and bylaw services for Lake of Bays Township.

The province waived the typical requirements on the premise that local municipalities would also waive them, Watson explained, noting the timeline for such a request can normally take up to six months.

The deadline for applications is Dec. 31, 2020 and will provide exemptions for zoning regulations and site plan approvals to expand an existing patio, or construct a new one, in order to adhere to social distancing measures. Watson noted the primary concern for the township is making sure that no patios are built on septic systems, and that washrooms and exits are in compliance.

Marty McDonald manages The Moose Cafe in Dwight where the existing patio will be extended into the grass to accommodate more tables. The café has been offering curbside pickup for takeout and frozen meals during lockdown and customers have been supportive, he said, which has been a big help because the financial impact of COVID-19 has been “huge.”

“We already have a good-sized patio,” he said, but with social distancing measures increasing the space between tables the café lost roughly 12 patio seats in addition to the 60 seats inside. Taking the Township up on its offer, MacDonald said, “will bring our patio number back to what it was before.”

“We’re trying to make this easy and simple for the businesses so they can get some business to their door,” Watson said, noting coffee shops are other businesses that are not licensed are also eligible. “All the municipalities are doing this,” he added.

For the businesses impacted by COVID-19 this option is necessary, “to keep everybody alive,” said Natalie Archer, operations manager at Sawdust City Brewing Company in Gravenhurst.

“I think it’s great that communities have done what they’ve done and the province has given us the opportunity to increase our capacity to rival that of what it was prior,” Archer said.

At Sawdust the patio has been extended with picnic tables behind the building giving the brewery and saloon a total of 65 seats. Typically the patio and dining room each have seating for 100 guests.

“We’re still below capacity,” she noted. “[COVID-19] has impacted us greatly. It’s more important than ever that people shop local.”

At press time, a spokesperson from the Township of Muskoka Lakes confirmed it would also offer a similar application process to businesses for temporary patio extensions.

STORY BEHIND THE STORY

In its newsletter, the Township of Lake of Bays included its plans to help assist restaurants and other food establishments in economic recovery from COVID-19. Our reporter took a look at which other municipalities are offering similar help, as well as who might apply for temporary patio extensions and how that would impact businesses, many of whom are struggling with a significant decline in revenue.

Kristyn Anthony reports for Muskokaregion.com through the Local Journalism Initiative, a program funded by the Canadian government.

Kristyn Anthony, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, muskokaregion.com