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Special meeting set to discuss opening Banff ped zone before June

“I support trying to get the pedestrian zone before June … but I do personally feel I need more information about the health and safety of the community," said Mayor Karen Sorensen.

BANFF – Banff’s business community is lobbying town council to open up the Banff Avenue pedestrian zone earlier than planned, prompting a special meeting next week.

With indoor restaurant dining once again banned and retailers limited to 15 per cent capacity due to rising COVID-19  cases in Alberta, many Banff businesses asked Banff town council to roll out the pedestrian zone sooner than the planned June 12 start date.

But Mayor Karen Sorensen said she is concerned about Banff’s evolving situation with growing COVID-19 case counts, including variant strains that originated in the United Kingdom and Brazil.

“We are in quite a bad way right now as far as COVID cases go, and my personal belief is it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” she said during a council meeting on Monday (April 12).

“I support trying to get the pedestrian zone before June … but I do personally feel I need more information about the health and safety of the community.”

To that end, a special meeting of council has been set next Tuesday (April 20) at 1 p.m. to allow time for more COVID-19 information, to measure how busy the town is this coming weekend and to get community-wide feedback on the proposal.

By opening the pedestrian zone earlier, restaurants and cafés could have outdoor dining on the street, which is still allowed under Premier Jason Kenney’s announcement last week to move back to step 1 public health restrictions.

A joint letter from Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association executive director Darren Reeder and Banff and Lake Louise Tourism president and CEO Leslie Bruce said offering up additional space that enhances safety feels like an appropriate step to take given the current situation as well as the onset of spring.

They said they understand the Town is unlikely to be able to offer the full pageantry and supports for the initiative approved by council in budget due to weather and resources.

“We still feel that the pros outweigh the cons to consider a staged rollout of the 2021 plan that at least grants the added space by closing the road to vehicles as soon as possible,” they wrote.

Business owner Yannis Karlos said he is confident in the ability of businesses to operate safely in an outdoor setting, noting the hospitality industry also wants to keep as many people employed as possible.

“The mental stress of continued and repeated mass layoffs is having a visible impact on our staff,” he wrote in a letter to council.

“Folks are struggling and government monies is not a substitution for regular paid work.”

Kees Vanderlee, who runs A Bit of Banff and Whiskey Jacks, said the sidewalks on Banff Avenue, Caribou Street and Wolf Street are almost as busy as they were last summer.

“I feel it will continue to increase earlier as people want to get out and away from the confines of their houses,” he wrote.

“Opening earlier would also make for much better space for our visitors, making things more safe for all.”

Councillor Brain Standish called for a May 1 opening date of the pedestrian zone, but said he was open to more public feedback at next Tuesday’s special meeting of council.

“I concur with thoughts on safety first, but I would also like to give the business community a sense of a target,” he said.

“It gives businesses something to look forward to –  they certainly need it – and it would also give our town administration time to work out some of those timelines.”

Voicing support for opening the pedestrian zone sooner than planned, Coun. Corrie DiManno said she also wants to make sure Banff has a better handle on the evolving COVID-19 situation.

“I think it’s really important to know that the big picture is we’re going to get the pedestrian zone,” she said, noting the goal is to support public safety and economic viability.

“But as we move forward through this right now, one of the primary concerns is getting our COVID situation under control here.”

Administrative officials say if downtown Banff gets too crowded, making it difficult to physically distance as was seen on the Easter long weekend, Banff Avenue can be shut down on short notice if needed.

“We don’t want to build an attraction at this point in time, but if people are going to come regardless, then we want to make sure they can do so safely,” said Town Manager Kelly Gibson.

As of April 13, the Banff and Lake Louise region had 95 active COVID-19 cases, including the B117 variant from the United Kingdom and the P1 strain that originated in Brazil.