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COLUMN: Council should show leadership by supporting patio program

COVID-19 is still a thing, and See You on the Patio provides a sense of both safety and community
2020-07-10 See You on the Patio Orillia 2
The city rolled out its See You on the Patio program in 2020. | Nathan Taylor/OrilliaMatters file photo

The controversy surrounding the See You on the Patio program is a tale of two surveys, both important and well inte‚Äč‚Äčntioned but lacking a vital perspective: the consumer.

It began with a poll of Downtown Orillia Management Board member businesses that garnered a participation rate that makes our election turnouts seem commendable.

Sixty-two of the 222 members responded. Forty-six per cent wanted to see the popular patio program proceed on three weekends only — weekends when there are already street closures in place.

That option, which comes at no cost to businesses, received more support than the other two — closing the street for 10 or 20 evenings in the summer — both of which, the survey noted, would require financial contributions from merchants.

Some saw the survey’s inclusion of funding details as a flaw, a trigger for businesses still feeling the financial effects of a two-year-old pandemic.

So, downtown entrepreneurs Tyler Knight and David Shaw rallied volunteers and polled about 90 businesses. They wanted a simple answer to a yes-or-no question: Do you support the See You on the Patio program?

Knight told OrilliaMatters there were, at most, 10 who said no.

“To me, that is an overwhelming support of the street closure,” he said.

He’s right. It is indicative of the downtown business community’s desire to see the program continue every weekend throughout the summer.

How do visitors and customers feel, though? If their thoughts are at all similar to those of the respondents to a survey following the program’s debut in 2020, there is significant support to go all in again this summer.

When the city offered a survey to gauge the popularity of the 2020 endeavour, 426 people provided feedback. The results were clear. Ninety-eight per cent indicated they took part in “at least one component” of the program, while 90 per cent said they “enjoyed visiting patios in general” and 75 per cent enjoyed shopping downtown when the street was closed to vehicular traffic.

While it is not an official sampling of opinions in the same way a survey is, OrilliaMatters’ letters to the editor section has been telling recently. Since we reported on the Downtown Orillia Management Board’s vote to scale back the program, readers have flooded us with letters that lay out their opposition to the move.

Surveys are helpful, but all we needed to do was walk downtown during See You on the Patio evenings and check it out for ourselves. When the weather was co-operative, the main street was bustling.

For some, it was the first time they’d seen friends and familiar faces since before the pandemic began. For others, it was an introduction to downtown Orillia and all it has to offer. Both are invaluable.

It provided a feeling of safety, too, allowing people to support downtown businesses in an open-air environment.

That is still a key factor for many.

Feelings are mixed when it comes to indoor dining. When vaccine and mask mandates and capacity limits were in place, they provided a sense of protection that made people feel comfortable being inside.

Those days are gone. COVID-19 is not.

As upper levels of government essentially wash their hands of responsibility, we look to our municipal politicians to employ common sense. It seems they might do just that.

Councillors David Campbell, Ralph Cipolla and Ted Emond are set to introduce a motion Monday that would have the See You on the Patio program run from 5 to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights from the Canada Day weekend to the Labour Day weekend.

Call it crazy conjecture, but I have a feeling COVID-19 will still be here come Labour Day.

To our city council: Show some leadership. Don’t mimic the province and feds by suggesting through your actions this mess is over. Don’t leave these businesses, and the many residents and visitors who cherish the See You on the Patio program, to their own devices.

Many are fine with dining indoors and not masking. Many are not. Providing an option for both camps would be a win-win.

Nathan Taylor’s local food and drink column appears every other Saturday.