The end of patio season has never been so bleak

Marie-Danielle Smith: There’s a growing shortage of patio heaters and many bars and restaurants are already struggling to stay afloat without the added cost. But even the coziest heaters may only extend the season by one or two months.

My toes are slightly numb in my canvas sneakers. My sweater isn’t quite warm enough to merit its name. My beer is frigid. Ye gods. It is barely autumn.

Way back in the summertime—how long ago that seems—a condensation-covered beer on a patio had me laughing in the face of this wretched year. I defy you, 2020. I defy you with my freshly poured craft ale and my physically distant socializing and my liberally applied sunscreen. I defy you in a sleeveless top.

Now, this cold beer is just a reminder: everything that isn’t cold now will be cold. Very, very soon. Before long, the snows will ruin one of the only safe, healthy, outdoor venues where city folk can commiserate and avoid the anxiety that comes with being inside next to other humans. The end of patio season has never been so bleak.

Some have already phoned it in. Says one pal: “Look, if I wanted to try and socialize while my internal organs slowly freeze, I could just sit in a cold bath and phone a friend. At least then I’d be less likely to catch the virus.”

But I refuse to give up. In Scandinavian countries, it isn’t unusual for bars to keep outdoor seating open well into the winter, breaking out heaters and wicker baskets full of communal blankies. Closer to home, there are enough year-round patios in Canada’s warmest metropolis, Vancouver—and even in relatively mild Toronto—to merit local blogs’ annual “best winter patios” lists.

READ: Well, at least the coronavirus reignited our love for the great outdoors

Even the city that fun forgot—I’m allowed to say that, because I grew up here—has extended patio permits through the end of the year. In Ottawa, New Year’s Eve historically brings temperatures of -5° C or worse.

If my toes going numb at 10° C are any indication, I’m going to regret saying this, but bring it on. If a brief, outdoor visit becomes the only safe way to see a friend outside my personal bubble, then we might as well enjoy a beverage. I will don long underwear and my winter coat. I will huddle by the patio heater like a cave-dweller by a fire: I am woman. Hear me roar for another cocktail.

That is, if there’s a patio heater to sit by. There is already a growing shortage of those. And many bars and restaurants are already struggling to stay afloat without the added cost.

“There’s a huge expense associated with that right now,” says Ivan Gedz, co-owner of Ottawa’s Union Local 613, when I ask him about the heaters his restaurant recently acquired. Fuel costs add up over time. And due to demand, the initial investment is likely to be inflated. “You can’t find those propane heaters anywhere, including Amazon, because everybody and their mother’s uncles have purchased them.”

Amazon-branded heaters were indeed out of stock when I checked. A majority of options at Lowe’s, Rona and Home Depot were sold out, too, unless you wished to buy a $1,800 table with a firepit in the middle.

If you can get it, a good patio heater will pump enough heat that “even if there’s light snow, I would be inclined to sit there and just have a beer,” Gedz tells me. I cling to these words. I live for these words. I, too, will have a beer outside during light snowfall, I tell myself.

READ: Stress, anxiety, hopelessness—during the coronavirus pandemic, who feels it the most?

Another local institution, Oz Kafe, is aiming to join the patio-heater bandwagon. Oz Balpinar, its owner and namesake, says they used to offer customers fun sweaters, acquired at Value Village, when the weather got nippy. The concept of borrowing a sweater is so quaint, so old-timey, that it breaks my heart.

Even the coziest heaters may only extend the season by one or two months. “We all know Ottawa winters. I really don’t see people dining in minus 35 weather,” she says. “I’ll be shocked if people want to sit outside in their Canada Goose down jackets, eating a steak that’s going to get cold in 10 minutes.”

Balpinar speaks the truth. I know this. But her words fling me into a depressive state. Because like any good Ottawan, after each winter I dutifully wipe my memory of those -35° C days. Like any good Ottawan, around this time of year I utter a phrase similar to what she tells me next: “Maybe we’ll have a really mild winter.”

My fixation on patios means I can’t muster the enthusiasm to take up something like snowshoeing. Or just going inside. Restaurants are adhering to strict public health rules to make dining as safe as possible. But rising caseloads this fall could force them to close their doors and become patio- or takeout-only operations. Watching the numbers creep up also triggers my personal paranoia, and emboldens all my instincts to become an armchair expert on buildings’ ventilation systems.

Balpinar brightens my mood. There will surely be a push for outdoor Christmas markets, she supposes, with mulled wine and hot chocolate and fairy-light decorations. I can get behind that.

But staring down the start of a long winter, and the uncertainty of the pandemic’s second wave, the idea of watching steam waft from a Styrofoam cup three whole months from now offers cold comfort. I had better hit the patio for one last pint, before I’m more chilled than my beer is.

This article appears in print in the November 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Drinks with ice.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.