Surrey restaurants and retailers struggling under the COVID-19 pandemic will enjoy more leg room, for more customers, thanks to a city council decision Monday night to approve a new “Parking to Patios and Sidewalk Queuing Space” initiative that’s designed to help them achieve the space they need to do business while continuing to honour social distancing requirements.
According to a city report, this pilot program will “permit the use of temporary outdoor areas.” It’s meant to be enacted fast, for the summer months.
Councillor Mandeep Nagra noted it usually takes two to three weeks to get approvals from Fraser Health before a plan is submitted to city hall, which eats another four or five weeks.
“Are we going to expedite the system for these applicants?” he asked staff. He was told the city expects its turnaround to be three days and the provincial government is working hard to de-regulate on its end.
“I think it’s a very unique solution for very unique times,” Councillor Laura Guerra said.
Linda Annis applauded the initiative.
“So many of our restaurants are suffering so badly and I think this is going to be a real boost to help them get going so that they can get the right number of customers into their stores,” she said. “Right now with the current guidelines it’s very difficult even though they are open for people to social distance and only to be able to get 50 per cent of your customers in doesn’t make for a good financial model.”
She said should would like to see the city not charge additional permitting fees “for these restaurants facing such serious financial trouble.”
Councillor Brenda Locke echoed that. Surrey’s general manager of engineering, Scott Neuman, told council there is a proposal for a $200 application fee, “but at the same time we are waiving the city road right-of-way use fees and traffic obstruction permit fees for net savings of about $2,000 to $3,000 per business. Businesses will not be out of pocket for this.”
Councillor Jack Hundial asked if it’s possible to waive all the fees. Staff replied $200 is a “nominal fee” and a lot of fees are picked up 50 per cent by the city.
Attorney General David Eby said last week that the provincial government is fast-tracking work on how to streamline patio approval for restaurants to provide more space for licensees to use outdoor seating.
To achieve that, Eby said, the province is handing jurisdiction of most of the approval process over to city governments.
“The provincial government won’t be slowing it down,” he said. “We understand every day matters right now.
“Public health advises us that people will be safer outside compared to inside,” Eby noted, “and with limited inside footprint for many restaurants they’re looking at ways of ‘how can we get even close to the numbers we need to stay open if we’re only allowed so many people inside the restaurant?’”
“So allowing people to have additional socially distanced seats outside will help them make the bottom line and it might make the difference between staying open or closing for a restaurant.”
The attorney general, meanwhile, noted that liquor regulation is a “multi-level, incredibly challenging beast to negotiate.”
Before a business can have a patio, he explained, it must have the consent of the civic government that it’s in an appropriate location.
“So if you make it through the municipal hurdle you have to provide your plans to the provincial government as well, an inspector approves the plans for safety and capacity, and then returns those approved plans to you, you build your patio and then and inspector comes and inspects the patio to make sure that it meets what the original plans said, and then the city almost certainly comes and does an inspection as well,” Eby said.
“It’s a long process. And when the weather turns good, there’s a lot of people who say ‘I think I should get a patio for my restaurant’, and they find out it’s going to take about six months to get a patio…our vision is that most of the approval process now will lie in the hands of the municipal government.”
Eby also noted the government has deferred license fees in the casino and liquor sectors that are typically due on June 30.
“Obviously, if your pub or restaurant is not open, paying those fees is just adding insult to injury so we’ve actually deferred that until you’re open and running.”
Meantime, Eby noted liquor stores have seen a “dramatic increase” in sales during the pandemic.
“A lot of people questioned why we might have liquor as a service that was still open during the pandemic,” he said. “I think it’s really important to recognize that both liquor and cannabis sales, the reason why they’re regulated industries, why the government engages in these industries, is because we want them to be regulated, there are social harms that are associated with using these controlled substances and to turn the entirety of either liquor or cannabis over to the black market during the pandemic did not seem like a very good approach to us.
“We certainly did not want to see a significant number of people who are addicted to alcohol showing up at emergency rooms in withdrawal in the middle of a pandemic either.”