BANFF – Banff’s downtown pedestrian zone will open April 30 following calls from the business and tourism industry struggling under the provincial government’s latest COVID-19 restrictions.
At a meeting on Tuesday (April 20), council gave the go-ahead to close the 100 and 200 blocks of Banff Avenue and a portion of Caribou Street to vehicles to make way for the pedestrian zone earlier than the planned June 12 start date.
Elected officials say closing the street is first and foremost about public safety in Banff, which now is the No. 1 COVID hotspot in terms of per capita cases in Alberta with 138 confirmed active cases.
“The first priority of the pedestrian zone is space and social distancing,” said Mayor Karen Sorensen during the meeting, noting Banff continues to see more visitors as the summer months approach.
“Business activity is a benefit, and I am really happy that we can provide that in an effort to keep our businesses afloat and certainly keeping more people employed during this third wave.”
The earlier start means that administration won’t be able to deliver on the big-picture vision for this year’s pedestrian zone right away, given some aspects will take longer to implement, such as beautification and animation.
That’s fine by Mayor Sorensen, who said she didn’t want to create a tourist attraction given the current surge in COVID-19 cases and potential for more provincial government restrictions.
“As people walk in the area and the lineups form at several businesses – retail, restaurants, whatever the case may be – we have to have additional space for pedestrians, both visitors and our residents,” she said.
Key changes from the 2020 pedestrian zone this year include keeping one traffic lane on both the east and west side of Banff Avenue clear for pedestrian access.
Roam transit services will also operate within the pedestrian zone on the east side of Banff Avenue.
In addition, eating and drinking establishments will get priority for space over retailers, and unlike last year, allowance will be made for those restaurants, bars or coffee shops located in basements or second floors.
The restaurant tents, which were highly criticized last summer, are banned this year and are also currently not allowed under provincial health guidelines. Umbrellas are allowed to provide cover from inclement weather.
Lastly, Caribou Street on the west side of Banff Avenue will be reconfigured this year to allow a central pedestrian zone with outdoor seating areas moved to adjacent business frontage.
Banff and Lake Tourism Tourism, Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association, and many independent businesses, called on council to consider an early start for the pedestrian zone date after the province went back to stage 1 in early April with rising COVID cases.
Mike Mendelman of Banff Hospitality Collective said his group was advocating for a May 1 start date, noting that would allow the business group to bring back 80 to 100 staff who lost work due to the government’s indoor dining closures.
“Alberta Health Services has once again come out with the guidelines that outdoor seating for restaurants is a safe and healthy way to conduct business,” he said during council’s meeting on Tuesday.
Council did receive one letter of opposition to the early opening of the pedestrian zone from Banff resident Stephanie Ferracuti.
She said she’s not opposed to anyone who runs a business or is wanting to make money, especially after the rollercoaster ride of a year, but now is not the time to open the pedestrian zone.
Ferracuti said provinces, cities and towns across the country are trying to contain the spread of COVID-19, and limit any non-essential movement to avoid collapsing the health care system.
“Any further tourism attraction is going to do what it’s intended to do – bring tourists and outside non-essential folks to Banff,” she said.
“We reside in a community where the individuals who staff these businesses often live in shared accommodation, and the rate of infection as it stands today is not good, and likely to continue to grow worse before it gets better.”
Councillor Corrie DiManno expressed similar concerns, stating she is in favour of an earlier opening, but perhaps a little later into May when Banff has a better handle on COVID-19.
“I would be more comfortable giving a bit more time to hopefully watch our cases come down and to watch our situation become a little bit more under control,” she said.
“It will also give more time to see if the Alberta government is going to come up with more restrictions …. I was hoping more for a May 14th.”