Restaurants were abuzz as diners returned indoors this past week and some gym goers felt like they could finally get their mental health back on track with a good, sweaty workout.
Friday was the first day of reopening under the province's Step 3 rules.
Inside Bricks & Barley in Virgil, there is a special chair at the far end of the bar.
Emblazoned on it is a plaque that reads “David O’Reilly.”
It's no coincidence that O’Reilly was the first person to sit down inside the restaurant since April, in his own chair nonetheless.
O’Reilly’s been a regular at the restaurant since it opened in January 2019. He’s such a good customer the staff got him his own chair a year and a half ago.
He sat at the bar and enjoyed a cold Canadian and told The Lake Report it felt “very good” to be back inside his favourite restaurant.
“My ex-wife will love this story,” he laughed.
General manager David McDonald was busy bracing his staff for what was already a busy day before the place even opened.
“People have been waiting for this weekend,” he said.
The patio was completely booked throughout the day and staff were planning on directing walk-ins to the indoor dining area.
McDonald said COVID really brought out the supportive side of the Virgil community.
“(The lockdown has) been great, actually. I’ve had a non-stop response from the community right from the get-go,” he said.
“It’s been really heartwarming, having all of these people show up to support our local businesses. It’s been great.”
Over at the Sandtrap Pub & Grill on Mary Street, diners were enjoying the indoor space due to limited patio seating and staff were too busy to chat as they ran from the patio to the dining room serving guests.
Henry Andrews was taking one of his employees out for a burger lunch while his mother was away on vacation.
“Me and my wife come to the Sandtrap quite a bit. It’s enjoyable and it’s excellent to be dining inside again,” Andrews said.
For Aiden Darosa, being able to pump some iron in the gym was a huge relief.
“Through the whole COVID thing and with the lockdown I went through a really hard time," said Darosa, member of NPNG Fitness in Virgil. "I think a lot of people did."
“Some people come to the gym for two hours a day and then go home and they don’t do anything because this is what makes them happy,” he said.
Darosa felt gyms were unfairly targeted as non-essential businesses, noting gyms are essential to many people's mental health. Their continued closures may have done more harm than good, he said.
“The gym, the atmosphere and the social community is such a benefit to each and every person’s mental health," he said.
"Personally, if I don’t wake up and go to the gym, I feel lethargic, I feel tired and unmotivated,” he said.
He felt that with people losing their jobs, their income and their social lives due to COVID, taking away gyms was just furthering the suffering in an already shutdown society.
On top of the economic suffering individuals went through, people had to pay exorbitant prices to work out at home.
“I went online to try and find gym equipment and it was impossible. People were charging $200 for a 20-pound dumbbell,” he said.
“I bought a bench press set for almost $600. That’s a week's pay for most people just so they can make themselves feel happy,” he said.
Walmart’s website shows a 20-pound dumbbell can be bought for $40, representing a 500 per cent markup by resellers, a common problem at times during the pandemic.
The financial toll of working out at home has only made the return to the gym that much sweeter.
“I’m just happy to be back,” Darosa said.
With Step 3 also came the reopening of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum.
Staff were busy Friday ensuring that exhibits were in full regalia and people could come in and enjoy the museum for the first time since the April lockdown forced it to close.
“It’s almost like bringing life back into the museum,” managing curator Sarah Kaufman said.
“We’ve been quiet and we’ve been closed. We’re very excited to bring people back in and welcome them, safely, to the museum.”
Kaufman doesn’t think people were aware that museums had to stay closed throughout the previous two phases of the reopening plan.
“I’ve had people just walk in sometimes when the staff were here and the door was unlocked and go, ‘We want to see your exhibits,’ ” she said.
She felt bad that she had to ask them to leave, but such is life in lockdown.
The big exhibit at the museum right now is Making Her Mark, which showcases the many contributions of Niagara-on-the-Lake's women to the town and the world over the last 200 years.
“A lot of the women in here range from the very beginning of the town to more recently. So, we have people like Donna Scott, who founded Flare magazine and received the Order of Canada. She just passed recently.”
Scott was a trailblazer for Canadian women in business and died in March 2020. She is featured alongside other famous Canadian women like Laura Secord and other NOTL recipients of the Order of Canada.
The museum is also introducing its new community courtyard, a tented space with seating and photo stand-in boards for fun photo opportunities.
The museum will be hosting silent movie nights in the courtyard on Aug. 19 and 26. They will be showing Charlie Chaplin’s legendary comedy "City Lights" and the equally famous film, "The Cameraman," by Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton.
There is also yoga on Wednesday mornings in the courtyard, a summer camp in August and an upcoming pig roast and treasure sale on Aug. 2 to help raise money for the museum.
It may seem like the museum has its hands full, but Kaufman said they didn't plan as many events as during a pre-pandemic summers out of fear another lockdown could lead to cancellations.
Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report