LONDON, ONT -- Restaurants and bars are bracing for the unknown, with the inevitable end of patio season on the horizon.

At Joe Kool’s and Toboggan Brewing Company on Richmond Row, the patios have been crucial during the pandemic.

“It’s a bit of a lifesaver. It’s not enough business, and when it rains or is really cold it’s affected,” explains owner Mike Smith.

The question weighing heavy on the minds of many restaurateurs this September, as temperatures continue to decline, will customers bundle up, move to indoor dining, or just stop coming?

“I’d love to stay outdoors as long as possible,” says Kim Horrill as she dines on the patio at Joe Kool’s.She feels safer on patios than eating inside— even with COVID-19 precautions in place.

“Most restaurant owners are responsible about wearing a mask and distancing,” she says. “But I’m going to be looking for more science about the spread of COVID-19 to see how comfortable I am about sitting inside.”

Smith has already watched many customers endure less-than-ideal patio weather. “There’s people with even a light drizzle stay on a patio, and you know they are probably uncomfortable going inside.”

In the spring, the number of outdoor patios exploded in London as eateries took full advantage of flexible rules and rapid permit approvals by city hall.

With thousands of jobs tied to the service sector, Mayor Ed Holder realizes the end of patio season could have dire economic impacts.

“We know how challenging it (COVID-19) has been for the restaurant businesses,” says Holder. “We are hopeful that as provincial (caseload) numbers get better, that there will be some flexibility in terms of their needs."

The mayor says he and the premier will be guided by the advice of public health officials.

Meanwhile, Smith is investing in his expectation that many patio customers will shift to takeout orders this fall and winter.

“We’ve upped our online ordering service, and we are having an app developed because there are people even uncomfortable coming to patios,” he says.

But weather forecasts in the coming months will also forecast the financial future of many local eateries.

Smith encourages Londoners to keep supporting their favourite establishments.“If you are comfortable going to patios, or inside,” he adds. “Not just ours, but others too, we hope you support them cause there’s a lot of people employed.”