Toronto’s popular CafeTO program could soon be made permanent through the creation of a new “streamlined” registration process that will allow participating businesses to operate expanded sidewalk patios year-round.

The program was first established in the summer of 2020 as a way to give bars and restaurants that were prohibited from serving customers indoors a leg up during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was then brought back this past spring and more than 1,200 restaurants ultimately participated, representing a 51 per cent increase from 2020.

In a report that will go before the city’s executive committee next week, staff recommend that the program be brought back for 2022 and that all permit fees be waived once again as a way of supporting a hospitality industry that has struggled.

But the report also recommends that staff get to work on establishing a new registration process for “future, permanent CaféTO sidewalk cafés” so that those businesses applying in 2022 need not apply again.

As part of that process staff will undertake a pilot project in 2022 that will create designate loading and unloading zones along commercial corridors where a substantial percentage of the on-street parking has been taken up by CaféTO patios.

Staff will also draft a fee structure that would help the city recoup some of the costs associated with operating the program. Those costs are pegged at $5 million in 2022.

“CafeTO has been one of our most successful pandemic relief programs. It has positively impacted our city and it has positively impacted hospitality business that call Toronto home and that is because we made the decision, as simple as it may be, to turn parking spaces into patios,” Mayor John Tory said during a press conference on Wednesday morning. “We know that people want this program to return, I want this program to return but that is not just because it is good for business. It changed the look and the feel of our city for the better.”

There were approximately 940 curb lane closures to accommodate expanded CafeTO patios this year, resulting in about 12 linear kilometres of public space being turned over to bars and restaurants.

In the report, staff say that “more work is required to monitor the impact of long-term curb lane closures on the travel network” particularly as the city returns to “pre-pandemic traffic volumes.”

For that reason, they say that 2022 is proposed as a “a final transition year before permanent program criteria are adopted to determine the permanent regulations of curb lane/parklet cafés.”

Speaking with reporters, Tory said that he would like to see CafeTO include “some street located structures in suitable locations” that would help “change the look and the feel” of a program which has largely used temporary infrastructure, such as pylons.

He said that concerns around accessibility should also be examined, as well as the po/tential traffic impacts associated with a year-round program.

“Keeping the city moving figures in because let's not forget that in traffic congestion are transit vehicles, delivery vehicles that are important to keeping these very same businesses going and people just trying to get around. But also we have to have, I think, a determination and a discipline to understand that in the 21st century for a whole bunch of reasons, including climate change and just how people want to live their lives in a big city, to constantly be examining how you use that space between one storefront on one side of the street and the other storefront on the other side,” he said.