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This article was published 28/6/2021 (207 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
GIMLI — The patio at Comodo had been quiet for months until Ying Jie Zhen grabbed hold of the hose late Friday afternoon.
With a turn of the spigot, water rushed through the rubber snake and streamed out the other end in a focused mist, as Zhen washed away the dust and leaves that for several months had been the only things sitting outside the Chinese restaurant right at the centre of this Interlake town.
Nobody ever looked happier doing dirty work.
There was a reason for the man’s joy: the next day, people could finally sit on the freshly washed green furniture and eat, the result of an updated and relaxed set of public health measures, issued by the province as COVID-19 infection rates decreased somewhat and as vaccination rates grew steadily. The size of permitted outdoor gatherings was set to grow to a maximum of 25 people.
In any city or town, those are good bits of news these days. But in a place such as Gimli, where the three summer months — accompanied by floods of daytrippers, cottagers and festival-goers — are what local businesses bank on, those bits of news are especially welcome with all of July and August yet to arrive.
And although neither the town nor province are fully reopened, they are slightly ajar, which is a much more optimistic metaphor than a closed door.
"During the week since the announcements were made (about loosened restrictions) I think it was clear people were experiencing some relief and optimism that we were going to be able to have a good summer season," said councillor Cody Magnusson, the chair of economic development and planning.
Across Gimli, there were signs of that optimism manifesting, plus a scramble to prepare for the busyness. Outside Kris’ Fish and Chips, a restaurant on the town’s main drag, a sandwich board called for resumés. The staff at Flatland Coffee Roasters were wiping down the patio enclosure, and took their outdoor seating to the carwash for a deep clean.
The lineup for ice cream at Buskers was swirling. At Prairie Trichomes, the newly opened cannabis store next door, sales were booming ahead of the weekend rush.
At Deals for Dollars, salesperson Emily Pemkowksi said there had been way more sales of things like beach noodles and water toys than in her previous three summers at the dollar store — a pretty good metric for beach attendance.
Even on a Friday afternoon, the public beach was teeming with sunbathers and families posted up at picnic tables with portable grills and water coolers. Five-year-old Lane Fierce was industriously playing in the sand. A woman was reclining while flipping through a copy of Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson. A man napped on an inflatable mattress in the shade, clutching a bag of Ruffles chips to his chest. In the water, a teenager struggled to remain upright on a boogie board.
Some areas weren’t quite as busy yet — Jim Krokosh, in town from nearby Spruce Sands, was the only angler casting a line out on the pier — while others, such as the Gimli Theatre, aren’t allowed to be yet under the current public health order.
Reading at a picnic table near the pier, Gimli resident John Moore said May had been a slow month in town, but he suspected July and August, as they did last year, would bring people en masse from across the province looking to swim or hang out in parks. That’s different than usual, when visitors would come for events like the Icelandic Festival or the Gimli Film Festival.
"For obvious reasons, (visits) haven’t been event-based," said the school counsellor and yoga instructor, before bowing his head back into his book. "It’s been a steady stream."
(The film festival, though still primarily happening online, will also have a drive-in component, the Free Press reported earlier this week.)
Magnusson said people have been coming to Gimli more often as the weather’s improved. "We’ve seen the uptick, but to be totally honest, we haven’t done a heck of a lot in terms of marketing," he said. "Before we even thought about ramping that up, people were already here."
And while that brought with it the obvious benefit of patronage to local businesses, the influx brought challenges, too, Magnusson said. "It hasn’t been hard getting people here," he said. "It’s been having people here in a safe way that still respects the fact that we’re operating with restrictions in place."
For instance, the busy beach is great, but the municipality hired an external security firm to assist the bylaw officer in ensuring proper distancing and rule-following on the sand, Magnusson said. More people also means more waste and more use of public washrooms, which means more frequent garbage pickups and surface cleanings.
Indeed, the evidence of a busy weekend was clear Sunday night, with water bottles strewn across the beach and fast-food containers blowing in the wind. But Magnusson said by and large, guests to the town have been respectful of the rules and social norms such as cleaning up after themselves.
Not far from the beach, Sumalee Phanad and the staff at Thai Plaza store and Smile Thai Restaurant were hopeful that the respect would continue, so this relaxing of the rules wouldn’t be a short-lived one.
Phanad, who runs the restaurant and shop with her family, said as hard as 2020 was for their businesses, 2021 has been harder, with people unsure of what they can or can’t do and largely avoiding going out.
On Saturday, Phanad’s staff flipped down the three large picnic tables beside the restaurant, with extremely cautious optimism that they’d be able to stay that way throughout July and August and beyond.
"Summer is always important here," she said. "Every day and every weekend we can stay open counts."
Mikaela MacKenzie loves meeting people, experiencing new things, and learning something every day. That's what drove her to pursue a career as a visual journalist — photographers get a hands-on, boots-on-the-ground look at the world.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.