Top News

Signs of the times: a study of COVID-19 business closure notices in St. John’s


Newfoundlanders’ hope, humour and resilience displayed on doors



As I walk in downtown St. John’s, some lines from David Francey’s “Torn Screen Door” play in my mind on repeat: “Hung a sign on a torn screen door/Nobody lives here no more.”

Dark thoughts for a sunny day, but the mostly empty streets seem to prove the lyrics true.

And the signs of the times are everywhere: some appear written in haste, like the one on Subway’s door on Water Street, which appears to be scrawled on paper towel: “We Are Closed,” in yellow highlighter.

Another seemingly swiftly scribbled sign on Boston Pizza’s door: “ClosEd,” in black marker, underlined, and: “StAy SAFe!!”

It was as if everyone suddenly heard the news — the coronavirus is here — and simultaneously put on their coats and went home to practise physical distancing (a phrase we can fully expect to be Oxford dictionary’s word of the year).

Boston Pizza kept its COVID-19 closure notice simple. -JUANITA MERCER/THE TELEGRAM - Juanita Mercer
Boston Pizza kept its COVID-19 closure notice simple. -JUANITA MERCER/THE TELEGRAM - Juanita Mercer

Well-wishes in windows

Farther east on Water Street, taped to Yellowbelly Brewery’s door, is a letter explaining the restaurant's plans for curbside pickup and contactless delivery — the new industry buzzwords. The letter ends with some lyrics from Joan Morrissey’s “Thank God We’re Surrounded by Water”:

“I’ll tell you a tale about Newfoundland dear,

We haven’t got money or riches to spare;

But we can be thankful for one small affair,

Thank God we’re surrounded by water.”

In this case, being an island offers us no reprieve. Since the coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31, 2019, it has spread to nearly every nook of the globe. Newfoundland and Labrador is no exception.

As I write, the province has 232 cases, and two people have died.

This despite the signs seeming to plead with me as I pass: “Stay Well,” says white paper taped to the window of Wild Things; “Stay healthy and safe,” reads the closed sign on The Merchant Tavern; and “If you can read this sign … move 6 ft back!” in Blue on Water’s window.

Blue On Water took a humorous tone — and went big — with its closure signs. -JUANITA MERCER/THE TELEGRAM - Juanita Mercer
Blue On Water took a humorous tone — and went big — with its closure signs. -JUANITA MERCER/THE TELEGRAM - Juanita Mercer

Walking is weird these days.

The few people I see seem desperate for a connection — more willing than usual to offer a smile or say hello as they pass, yet simultaneously running to the other side of the street.

Signs scattered throughout the downtown provide the bleak reminder in case, somehow, I forgot:

“SIX FEET APART

OR

SIX FEET UNDER.

YOUR CHOICE!”

They shout.

A sign on Green Door Restaurant & Bar on Water Street indicates the owners are obliging that order: “WE ARE HIBERNATING,” it reads. “IN THE MEANTIME FOLLOW THE RULES, BE CAUTIOUS, BE HAPPY & EAT GOOD FOOD!”

George Street is a time capsule. Its signs read like a relic from a bygone era. Back when you could see and hug your friends, shake the hand of a stranger, pet a passing dog.

“LIVE AT MARTINI BAR THIS WEEKEND

BLACK SHEEP

STARTING 10:30”

A sign outside The Rock House lists the bands playing on a weekend, and I wonder if the shows ever went ahead:

“FRI SOAP OPERA

SAT BEATLES FOR SALE

MON DAVE WHITTY BAND

THURS PROXING DAY”

The signs on George Street seem to hearken back to a simpler time when sweaty people danced cheek to cheek to live music - not physical distancing. It's hard to believe it was only three weeks ago the bars were ordered to close. - Juanita Mercer
The signs on George Street seem to hearken back to a simpler time when sweaty people danced cheek to cheek to live music - not physical distancing. It's hard to believe it was only three weeks ago the bars were ordered to close. - Juanita Mercer

Harnessing humour and hope

Even a novel virus can’t compete with human resilience.

While doors to the shops are closed, many of them have signs indicating a new way to buy.

“Times have changed and so have we … for now,” reads the notice on The Bees Knees.

“We are closed for in-store shopping because of the Covid-19 health emergency. We are open limited hours for contactless curbside pickups.”

I could write a lengthy list of the downtown businesses that quickly adapted to the global pandemic seemingly overnight. Upscale restaurants now offering takeout, gift shops selling online with free delivery. All of these changes are detailed on the signs of their locked doors.

Their hopeful innovation mutes the song in my head: “There’ll be no torn screen doors here,” I say.

Despite physical store closures, many downtown businesses are finding other ways to remain open — at a distance. Retail outlets are focusing on online sales, and restaurants are offering delivery or takeout. -JUANITA MERCER/THE TELEGRAM - Juanita Mercer
Despite physical store closures, many downtown businesses are finding other ways to remain open — at a distance. Retail outlets are focusing on online sales, and restaurants are offering delivery or takeout. -JUANITA MERCER/THE TELEGRAM - Juanita Mercer

And we wouldn’t be Newfoundlanders if we didn’t find a way to laugh through the gloom.

Fogtown Barber & Shop’s closing sign pleads with clients not to cut their own hair.

“You might think it’s the right thing to do, and that you can handle it. But it’s not. And you can’t. We’ll be here to cut your hair soon, so be patient. You’re still super handsome, we swear. Especially Matt. You know who you are.”

Farther up the hill on Cathedral Street, Wig Wags dog grooming salon aptly wrote its COVID-19 closure sign on a ripped piece of paw-printed paper. Its message is simple:

“TO ALL OUR CLIENTS

So Sorry The Shit Hit the Fan!!

Closed until…”

No one’s sure when. But eventually, the signs seem to hope that this desolate downtown will again see crowded cafes and bustling bars:

“When COVID-19 is behind us and it’s safe to open shop, we’ll be firing up the kitchen and pumping out some of the best food in St. John’s, just like we’ve done for years!” reads the poster at The Celtic Hearth and Bridie Molloys.

“Please remember when that time comes to get out and support your local pubs, restaurants and other businesses.”

For now, most days I feel like the sign on The Duke of Duckworth, stuck behind bars, but optimistically praying, “HOPEFULLY WE WILL SEE EACH OTHER AGAIN SOON.”

Like a metaphor for our times, the notice on The Duke of Duckworth is physically distanced behind bars. -JUANITA MERCER/THE TELEGRAM - Juanita Mercer
Like a metaphor for our times, the notice on The Duke of Duckworth is physically distanced behind bars. -JUANITA MERCER/THE TELEGRAM - Juanita Mercer

Twitter: @juanitamercer_

Recent Stories