Tucked under the dome of their umbrella on the rooftop patio of the Black Clover restaurant, Cynthia Carrier and Sylvia LeBlanc were staying dry in the afternoon downpour as they ate their lunch.
The light rain those dark thunderclouds brought was just a minor distraction for the longtime friends as they took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather to get reacquainted on the first Summerfest Saturday of the season.
“This is the first time we’ve had lunch since COVID,” said Carrier , who first met LeBlanc when they worked together on the BC rail trains.
“We’ve had couple dinners together but this is the first lunch we’ve been able to have without having to mask up,” said LeBlanc.
Both have received their second COVID vaccinations and they’re starting to come out of the pandemic shadow, feeling more comfortable about being around crowds and not having to practice social distancing wherever they go. With infection rates low, B.C. has relaxed heath regulations and people no longer have to wear face masks indoors in public places, as they did for more than a year while the pandemic was wreaking havoc on the world.
“It’s freeing,” said Carrier. “I’ll still wear my mask walking around, but if I’m sitting across the table form Sylvia I’m not going to wear it.”
They both wore theirs until they were seated at the restaurant but none of the restaurant staff were wearing masks. LeBlanc works as a ticketing agent at the airport for Pacific Coastal Airlines and her job still requires it.
“You’re in pretty close quarters and it’s all masks there and sanitation,” said LeBlanc. “I’m still careful, maybe because I’m at the airport with people coming and going. Prince George is pretty good; our numbers have been down, but it’s the travel.”
Carrier saw the rain coming as she drove downtown to meet up with LeBlanc but they weren’t going to let that keep them from enjoying their view of Fifth Avenue and George Street below from their third-floor perch. She had a great view of the big thunderstorm that ripped through the city overnight, finally providing some needed rain after three weeks of drought. It left clear skies free of the wildfire smoke that had choked the city the previous few days.
“I live in Blackburn and my window faces the area where it was coming down and felt like someone was taking a flashbulb in my room - my Yorkie was terrified, it shook the whole bed,” said Carrier. “I actually got up at one o’clock in the morning to pack three Rubbermaid containers just in case we have to run because of the fires. The dog is a priority but if I can I’m going to save my wedding photos and my jewelry and save the important papers.”
Downtown Prince George, the not-for-profit organization that provides programs to encourage people to shop, eat, drink and be entertained in the downtown core, has for years presented Summerfest as a one-day event. But this year, coming out of the pandemic, organizers were forced to do something different. Patios were the theme of the first Saturday and group of restaurants collaborated on a $500 restaurant voucher available for entry free online at www.downtownpg.com.
Kevin and Lara Pederson came downtown with their two kids, six-year-old Parker and nine-year-old Claire, to stop at The Makerie Craft & Coffee Bar on Fifth Avenue. They got there just before the rain and sipped on beverages while the kids picked up paintbrushes and used them to paint mini houses they brought out to their patio table.
“It’s nice to see the lack of masks and people just getting out and doing stuff,” said Kevin. “People have that second dose (of COVID vaccine) and a little normalcy is nice to see. You respect those who maybe want to be sheltered a little bit but at the same time even they are getting out, so it’s good.
“I feel like there a bit of a boom coming maybe for a bit because everyone have been cooped up.”
The Pedersons own Frozen Paddle, a homemade ice cream store on Cowart Road, now in its second year at that location after three years of selling their sweet treats exclusively out of a truck. Their downtown visit Saturday together as a family was the first of many they intend to take this year.
Claire Pederson went through the lockdowns of 2020 that kept her isolated and during that time, when school lessons were taught remotely on Zoom, she missed seeing her friends. Her Grade 3 groups at Southridge Elementary School this year were kept small to limit interactions outside of their own bubble but she and Parker did get to play with their pals. They also got to play hockey – even though pandemic health orders limited them to practice only, with no games and no parents allowed to watch them. All restrictions should be gone by September and they are all looking forward to that.
“It feels really good to be out and about and being social and seeing everyone enjoying themselves in Prince George,” said Lara. “Just walking over it did seem kind of weird because everyone was so close together, just enjoying themselves.”
Ken Wintemute brought her three-year-old pit bull mix Baloo from Edmonton and they hooked up with Robert Jervis for a walk around downtown to the Farmers Market and a stop for a caffeine fix at the Makerie patio.
Wintemute worked with Jervis at Earls restaurant before she moved to Alberta and she said those were scary times serving guests at their tables during the height of the pandemic. They trusted their co-workers not to spread the virus but that was impossible with strangers coming and going to eat at the restaurant.
“All the protocols that were in place (last summer) it was just a lot of extra work that not everyone was always considering,” said Wintemute. “We didn’t have the opportunity to socially distance from people and we had masks and they didn’t because they were eating, and we weren’t vaccinated. When I was there last year, people weren’t required to wear masks at all.”
All his co-workers get temperature tested for fevers when they arrive at work and the staff at Earls still wear masks, as per restaurant policy, but Jervis doesn’t wear his once he leaves his job. He’s happy the restaurant is back to being open until 1 a.m. and he has regular eight-hour shifts, but his job is certainly not easy.
“I’m one of the oven cooks and that heat wave was really rough,” said Jervis.” We work right next the ovens, open flames, the flat top and it gets up 45 degrees in the kitchen. During that heat wave we were walking in and we were already sweating.”
Jervis doesn’t go downtown often but likes interacting with people and he’s missed having those opportunities to mingle.
“It’s been crazy, it’s been rough, honestly,” said Jervis. “I work in the restaurant business so my entire COVID life has been walking to work, working, going home, sleeping, and working.”
Makerie owner/operator Kim Hayhurst is thankful the pandemic is mostly in the rearview mirror and her café/craft centre can start taking advantage of the pedestrian traffic that converges in one of the trendier parts of downtown. The wood patio at the front of her store, which opened last August, was built free of charge by former inmates of the Prince George Correctional Centre in a project sponsored by the Prince George Activator Society.
“We had about two months of quasi-normal operations before the restrictions really came into effect and it’s been a very slow climb back to capacity to where we were before,” said Hayhurst. “We love being downtown and we love having our patio out. It’s something we always wanted to do. We were incredible fortunate the Activator Society came forward to help us out because there was no way we could have afforded to have a patio this year. They donated the materials and helped us build it. The more we do this kind of stuff, the more attractive it is for people to come downtown.”
Next Saturday, local businesses are teaming up to offer specials and a $500 Summerfest shopping spree, Dogs will be the centre of attention for the July 24 Summerfest Saturday and the draw is for a canine care package. Summerfest wraps up July 31 with a bike theme and the online winner will claim a $500 gift certificate from Cycle Logic.