'We've been waiting with bated breath': Local businesses cheer phase three reopening plan

Escape Manor
Steve Wilson (second from left) and the team at Escape Manor are hoping to reopen the escape room chain's Hintonburg location on Friday. File photo

After nearly four months on the sidelines, Steve Wilson and his partners at Escape Manor are ready for the fun and games to resume at their five escape rooms in eastern Ontario.

The Ottawa-based chain ​– which operates 10 facilities in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Australia – is one of a myriad of local businesses that will be allowed to resume operations on Friday as the province moves into phase three of its plan to gradually reopen the economy.

Wilson didn’t hide his emotions when Premier Doug Ford finally gave entertainment centres like his the green light to get back in business.

“I jumped up and down,” he told OBJ on Monday afternoon, about an hour after Ford’s news conference. “The first thing I did was text both my business partners with a lot of exclamation points – July 17, go, go, go! This is what we were waiting for, and now we just need to rally the troops.”

Ottawa Board of Trade president and CEO Sueling Ching also hailed the province’s move, saying she’s confident facilities such as restaurants and gyms can safely welcome customers once again.

“The time is now to get the economy reignited,” she said.

Most of the province except the Greater Toronto Area and other parts of southern Ontario will now be allowed to reopen a wide range of businesses that had been shuttered since mid-March in a bid to contain COVID-19. 

Indoor drinking and dining in bars and restaurants and live arts performances have been given the go-ahead, and movie theatres, fitness centres and playgrounds are also permitted to get back up and running as of Friday – with strict health and safety measures in place such as physical distancing and stepped-up cleaning protocols.

At Escape Manor, for example, bookings will be staggered to allow staff to do a deep clean of all the rooms in between sessions. “Heavy-touch” puzzles have been rejigged, masks are mandatory in common areas and all members of a party must be in the same social bubble.  

Wilson believes business can resume without a hitch, noting he and his team had a chance to work out reopening kinks when they relaunched their operations in Brisbane, Australia six weeks ago and in Regina and Saskatoon late last month.

“We’re really ready for this,” he said. “We’ve just been waiting with bated breath.”  

'A good step'

At Centretown brew pub Flora Hall, owner Dave Longbottom said he’s aiming to have the taps flowing on Friday. The province is allowing up to 50 people to gather indoors under the new reopening rules, and he expects the popular pub located in a refurbished auto garage to fill up quickly with thirsty craft beer-lovers eager to get their fix.

The bar’s normal capacity is 140 people, but Longbottom says he agrees with the province’s “phased approach” to ensuring businesses open with public safety concerns at top of mind. 

“It’s a far cry from what we would do on a busy weekend, but it’s a good step,” he said. 

Flora Hall has been selling canned beer online and at its taphouse on Flora Street throughout the pandemic. Longbottom said sales spiked midway through the lockdown but then “almost evaporated overnight” when patios were allowed to reopen. 

His pub is set to stage a patio with room for 50 patrons once a week throughout the summer as part of the Bank Street BIA’s plan to close a section of the street to vehicles every Saturday. But Longbottom says a once-a-week patio is no substitute for the revenues he can reclaim by reopening his bar.

“As much as the patio is wonderful, with the weather as it is, I don’t really like to rely on that,” he said, adding his revenues have been cut in half during the pandemic despite his retail operation. 

Longbottom says his biggest problem will be figuring out how to “keep people flowing” through the two-level pub while maintaining proper distancing. Since he was also planning to use tables and chairs from the bar to furnish his patio, he’s now scrambling to figure out a work-around. 

“I’ve just to do a little jockeying,” he said. “Space is a big premium for me. I can't really bring in extra furniture – I’ve got nowhere to put it.”

Reduced capacity

Jenna Ladd, the owner of Hintonburg fitness centre Iron North Studio, has an equipment challenge of a different sort. When her gym was forced to close back in March, she let members borrow weights and other fitness paraphernalia so they could continue to work out at home.

Now, in between adjusting the layout of her club to ensure her members can maintain a three-metre distance while training, cycling or doing yoga, she’s firing off emails in an effort to reclaim all her loaned-out inventory before the end of the week.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to be ready for (Friday),” she said. “They have four days to return it, so I think we’ll be OK.”

Ladd concedes the pandemic dealt a severe body blow to Iron North’s bottom line. While online classes did generate some income and her members launched a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $10,000, she said revenues plummeted nearly 80 per cent. In the end, she was forced to lay off all of her two dozen instructors and managers – some of whom have continued to teach online for free.

Over the nearly four months her gym on Somerset Street West was shut down, Ladd estimates she’s lost more than $100,000 in revenues. Even once she’s back and up running, she says the gym will be able to operate at only about 50 per cent of its normal capacity.

“We’ve had our legs broken,” she said. “Now the government is giving us the green light to run, but our legs are still broken. We’re trying to find our footing again. It’s going to take us time to recover.” 

Meanwhile, as Escape Manor prepares to gradually resume operations – its Hintonburg location will likely be the first to reopen this Friday, with other facilities following suit down the road – the company is busy getting the word out to employees, many of whom have been drawing federal government relief. 

“It’s kind of like getting a paid summer (vacation),” Wilson said with a chuckle. “We just hope that they’re willing to come back and work as opposed to being at the beach.”

Some businesses, including water parks, amusement parks and buffet-style food services, must remain closed under the new rules.