Many residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake say they are frustrated at the continued closure of outdoor activities and business owners say they are struggling to stay alive as the province extended the latest stay-at-home order till at least June 2.
Robert Pena, a resident of Thorold who goes for walks every week with his brother and family from Virgil, does not take issue with the idea of an extended lockdown.
But his children’s limited access to outdoor activities and building friendships thas Pena frustrated with the state of things in Ontario.
“This park is beautiful and it’s a shame that they have it all closed down,” Pena said, gesturing to the fenced-off soccer nets in Centennial Park.
The wide fields of Centennial Park look accessible enough, but the soccer nets are surrounded with orange fencing, the basketball nets are boarded up and the tennis nets have been removed from the courts to discourage any attempts to use them.
“It’s the extracurricular activities, right? I just want my son to start playing soccer and meeting new kids. It’s kind of hard to do that,” Pena told The Lake Report.
That was a recurring theme for residents: that the lockdown does not necessarily need to go hand in hand with the closure of outdoor activities.
Jim Pagano took issue with seeing young people unable to use public sports facilities, noting it is the only healthy activity people can do during lockdown.
Pagano said he was down by Rye Heritage Park and saw a single young man trying to shoot hoops on the basketball courts.
“One person wanted to play and they put wood over them,” he exclaimed.
Pagano questioned the fairness of being told not to gather inside and also being told you can’t do open-air activities.
“Yesterday we drove by Rye Park and there were people playing tennis without the nets,” he said.
Pagano was bewildered that the nets had been taken off the tennis courts.
He suggested the closure of outdoor activities is prompting more people to get together with friends inside.
“What’s to stop me from going to have a beer at a friend's house (instead of on a patio)?” Pagano wondered.
Pagano’s comments reflect the fact that people are getting frustrated with restrictions that prevent outdoor activities on top of indoor gathering restrictions.
And some are placing the lack of cohesion in Ontario’s COVID fight squarely on the shoulders of our leaders.
“We have one more year of (Premier Doug) Ford, and then it’s done,” Pagano said.
John Koldenhoff, who owns Maple Leaf Fudge on Queen Street, echoed this sentiment.
“I blame the government. We should have been vaccinated earlier. They screwed up with that. Where we are now, we should have been in March or February,” he told The Lake Report
Koldenhoff has owned Maple Leaf Fudge for over 40 years, and it seems the business won’t be shutting down anytime soon.
“I haven’t been doing too bad,” Koldenhoff said, “we’re holding our own, but we’re not making any money.”
“I’ve gotten lucky,” he said.
In the world of COVID, evidently, not doing too bad means you are barely breaking even, and even then you are one of the lucky ones.
Koldenhoff said that his business has been able to make 48 to 50 per cent of their usual business throughout the pandemic thanks to internet and corporate orders.
It isn’t just through sales that the business has been able to continue, but thanks to some government subsidies as well.
“I’ve never had a loan before,” Koldenhoff said, “now I’ve got two.”
“It’s helped, the wage subsidy. But I wish I could have a couple more employees.”
Koldenhoff expected that he would be working less at his age, not more.
“I’m 68. This is supposed to be my (retirement),” Koldenhoff said.
His heart goes out too the businesses that don’t have the same selling and shipping ability that his store does.
“For the bars and restaurants, it’s terrible,” he said.
One of those restaurants is Sono’s Café in Virgil.
Owner Mahmoud Sono has had the business for over 20 years, and this lockdown has put him near the line of closing his doors permanently.
“We’re having five to ten per cent of our business,” he told The Lake Report.
Sono still has several employees working in the store, but the overhead cost of keeping them employed has been weighing heavy on his shoulders.
There’s “three people working inside right now waiting every two hours for a five or 10 dollar order,” Sono said.
At minimum wage this means the business is losing around $35 - $40 an hour solely on wages.
It wasn’t always so bleak for Sono. He recalled the first lockdown being a good deal busier and thinks that people have lost the energy they had a year ago to support local businesses.
“The first lockdown was not so bad,” said Sono.
“Locals were supporting us the first lockdown. Not anymore. Everyone has given up.”
But Sono pointed out that even if locals were eating at his restaurant every day, he would still be losing money due to the lack of tourists.
Locals make up “20 per cent of our business. We depend on the people passing by,” Sono said.
“Our town lives on the people from out of town. We are dying here. I don’t know how much longer we can survive.”
Koldenhoff agreed with Sono’s thoughts on tourists.
“We need them. We need the busses, we need the tourists, we need the bridges open. We really need the tourists,” Koldenhoff said.
The lack of tourists this lockdown has hurt Sono’s business significantly more than it did last year.
“The first lockdown we had some people from out of town. This lockdown? Nothing at all. Everybody stays home, nobody wants to spend money” he said.
Much like residents who are frustrated that they can’t use outdoor amenities, Sono also wondered why restaurants can’t be allowed to have some level of patio dining or outdoor service, especially as the long weekend rolls around.
They could at least “let us open a patio, or a picnic table, or something,” he said.
“It’s very bad, this lockdown.”
Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report