The great reopening

September 2021

First, it was patios. Then, it was limited capacity, with masks and socially-distanced tables. Now, in an extended Stage 3, Ontario’s reopening is inching toward normalcy and the relief that ‘normal’ might bring. I asked several Thunder Bay business owners what they’ve experienced coming out of lockdown, and the answers might surprise you!

“It was hard not being able to see our customers,” says Mike Roulston, owner and head chef of cosmopolitan restaurant & wine bar, Lot 66. “Or hear the clinging and clattering of dishes.

I really look forward to the day when we can talk to our customers without a mask on.”

Mike is ahead of the curve when it comes to the restaurant business, and he quickly understood the need to adapt to a lockdown world in order to survive. For Lot 66, that meant a take-out/delivery menu, daily promotions, and special Sunday Suppers. He also embraced a vision for an outdoor dining space head on, with construction of an elegant, breezy outdoor patio, Far Niente, Italian for Do Nothing. In other words, relax. We’ve got this.

Kristen Wall of Gallery 33 said that they tried many different strategies to help cope with the loss of customers and students, including virtual classes and an online gallery, but that just can’t make up for the energy of face-to-face interactions.

“I missed not being able to run art classes,” says Wall, “Especially for my school age students, because they find it almost as a type of therapy and love the camaraderie. The other hard part was that Gallery 33 is first and foremost an art gallery and not being able to let customers in more than 1 at a time, combined with a lack of tourists, didn’t allow for many art sales. I put together an Online Store, which was a lot of work but I felt so guilty for my artist members! I am so happy I have it set up though, and we’ll be keeping it, even after re-opening!”

We are happy to report that Gallery 33 is now currently open to the public now, with shortened hours and social distancing protocols in place.

“Folks that have come in have been incredibly happy we are open again, but it doesn’t feel as busy as it used to be. Probably because of the major lack of tourists, but I don’t see tourism flourishing again any time soon.” I asked her what she was most eager for in the coming months.

“Running bustling art markets and big painting parties,” she says wistfully. “There’s something so energizing about many creative and creative loving people enjoying art in the same space. The chatter and the awe. I can’t wait for that excitement to return! I think all Thunder Bay artists and makers probably feel the same way.”

The performing arts were also severely impacted by the Covid lockdowns, and Cathi Winslow, Artistic Director of the 10x10 Play InTENsive Showcase, is understandably excited for the process of reopening to live audiences.

“Live theatre was one of the first industries to shut down and it’s one of the last to re-open,” says Winslow. “Not being able to perform in person for audiences meant we were at a standstill. A large part of our revenue comes from the box office, so the lockdown cut off one of our main sources of funding.”

The promise of reopening gave them the promise of live performances, and the creatives behind the 10x10 Showcase kicked into gear!

“We were able to rehearse in July and August this year, sometimes on Zoom and sometimes in person,” she says. “We divided our ten plays into five short shows of two plays each, and we presented our showcase outdoors at the Waterfront Spirit Garden August 27-29. We called it 10x10 Out Loud.”

I asked her how the community’s response has been to the change of style/venue.

“All five of our Sunday performances were completely sold out! And despite very threatening weather that day, almost everyone came out to see the shows. They brought rain gear, blankets, hats, and sunscreen to make sure they’d be able to enjoy the plays no matter what. I think theatre audiences crave that live in-person experience.”

Local fashion hot-spot, The Loop, is an independently owned and operated women’s clothing store in downtown Port Arthur. They’ve always had an online store, so were able to offer delivery/shipping/curbside, but they admit it has been hard to adapt to the changing retail climate.

“As a clothing boutique, not being able to have customers in and try things on and offer the personalize shopping experience we usually do was difficult,” say owners Beth DeProphetis and Alan Tocheri. “Customers just didn’t have the same need to shop either - special events and regular evenings out were locked down, and people were working from home.”

The Loop specializes in Canadian designers and, while they weren’t dependent on international supply chains like some businesses, even nationwide supply during these times has been uncertain.

“Although we feel like things are ‘back to normal’ now in terms of customer shopping behaviour,” says DeProphetis, “The supply chain is still dealing with the effects of the last year and a half. Shipments are delayed and vendors reduced their production runs for the fall season, so ordering enough product for the current demand has been a challenge.”

That said, they are delighted with the support from customers and clients!

“Our clientele has been great!” says DeProphetis. “Customers have missed the in-person shopping, browsing, and human interaction. Online shopping is great; accessible 24/7, you can browse for fun, and discover new things. But it doesn’t take the place of feeling the fabric, trying a large variety of styles and sizes on at once, and the in-person assistance and suggestions of the store staff.”

That client positivity has literally kept some businesses going, despite incredible hardship.

“The support that we have felt throughout this experience has been so uplifting,” says Jenn Bisignano, Owner & General Manager of PUSH Fitness Centre. “The genuine sense of mutual excitement that is felt each time we reconnect with patrons that we haven’t seen has been one of the best silver linings. It reaffirms the sense of community that we feel within our ‘PUSH fam.’”

Gyms and fitness centers are one of the hardest hit industries, with PUSH experiencing a total of 319 days locked down.

“The hardest part was the feeling of helplessness,” says Bisignano. “In providing a service that in many ways can be argued as essential, it felt as if we were depriving people of what they needed to keep their health (mental, physical, emotional, and social) on track. From having never been closed for a single day throughout over 18 years of operation, to having to literally lock people out was a heavy cross to bear.”

But all that sacrifice has paid off with a renewed sense of community between clients and small businesses, and Bisignano can already see the renewed commitment to support local.

“I’m looking forward to the stronger bond that has been built amongst the Thunder Bay small business community,” she says, “And the greater sense of general awareness of the importance of supporting local. People that open small businesses take a risk to realize a passion; it may not be the ‘safe’ choice, but it’s the one that lets them follow their heart. This city and the people who bring it to life deserve the incredible services provided by the entrepreneurs – the makers – and in turn, those who dare to dream are worth all the love and support that Thunder Bay has to give!”

As the seasons change with the closing-up of Autumn, our economic community begins a slow, gradual return to life. ‘Normal’ may be a long-time coming, but with creative entrepreneurs like these, this journey has been filled with hard work, perseverance, ingenuity, and hope. With a little more time and patience, soon the hugs will follow!

Heather L. Dickson is a photoshop guru, zoologist and author of 6 novels.

Visit her website at

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