Creativity needed to face challenges of getting outdoors during first COVID-19 winter, planner says

Going for walks and gardening were just some of the popular outdoor activities during this COVID-19 spring and summer, but fall officially kicked off on Tuesday and spending time outside is going to become less comfortable than it was in 20 C.

With better air flow and more space available outdoors, the Saskatchewan government recommends to move activities outside “wherever possible” during the pandemic.

The province’s typical freezing winters are just around the corner, so citizens, businesses and municipalities will have to get creative to make outdoor spaces more attractive in the cold.

“Winters can be tough on people at the best of times, especially after the Christmas season,” said Alan Wallace, planning director with Wallace Insights, president of the Saskatchewan Professional Planners Institute and former director of planning and development for Saskatoon.

“This year with no travel, limited exercise options, hockey leagues delayed, you know, there are going to be fewer outlets for people to relax and enjoy … the city.”

Restaurant patios

With patio heaters currently in high demand, according to the Retail Council Canada, businesses and private households already seem to be on track to warm up their decks. Kal Littler from the council told CBC earlier this month that these products “have been flying off the shelves.”

Patios are a great way for restaurants to boost their business during COVID-19 when indoor capacity is limited and some customers prefer to eat outside. 

Temporary changes to Saskatoon’s parking patio program now allow restaurants to install parking patios year round. 

In addition, businesses like Las Palapas Resort Grill in Saskatoon have started to prepare for colder days by making their patios winter proof.

“We just thought, ‘Uh oh, we’re going to be in trouble if we only have half of our seats throughout the restaurant for our long winter,'” said general manager Jason Wosminity.

He and his team decided to cover their patio with canvas tarps and rent a tent heater to utilize the space as long as “Mother Nature will allow and as long as customers will be willing to sit out there.”

For their project, the restaurant partnered up with another Saskatchewan business, Night Owl Audio and Entertainment, which put up the structure.

“They, too, were hit so hard with COVID that they jumped at the chance to get a little bit of revenue and to help us out,” said Wosminity.

Customers have been enjoying the experience, he said.

“They like the feel of being in Mexico, but not being in Mexico, because they can’t be.”

Public spaces

Wallace agrees there are ways to make people comfortable outside, even during the colder months of the year.

Beyond what restaurants and people at home can do, municipalities have the authority to change how we use public space, Wallace said.

“I think we need to keep an open mind about how to use public space more … effectively, during COVID in particular,” said Wallace.

Even though fall has just started, it’s important to begin the conversation about winter right now, he said, as things will need time to be implemented. The idea is not to promote large gatherings, Wallace said, but to “promote outdoor activity.”

Winter strategies

Winter city strategies can help on a permanent basis to keep the economy going and bring people outdoors, he said.

Edmonton, Montreal or Winnipeg are examples of cities that have developed strategies in the past “to deal with the effects of winter,” said Wallace.

“We need to be a little more creative here and be open-minded.”

Saskatoon’s final WintercityYXE strategy was presented to the Standing Policy Committee on Planning Development & Community Services this month, the city said in an email, with an implementation plan being anticipated for early 2021.

According to the City of Regina, council asked administration to explore priorities and next steps related to a winter city strategy in 2019. That work has been delayed due to COVID-19, the city said in an email, but is supposed to be brought forward in a report in 2021.

In the meantime Regina “is exploring options on how to create additional sport, recreation and cultural opportunities outdoors in response to COVID-19.”  

Active transportation such as walking is another option to stay active during the cold months.

“That is the way people are going to, you know, cope through this difficult winter season,” said Wallace.

“And they may discover that there’s a lifestyle there that they’ve never realized they enjoy.”

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