Fire marshal suddenly shuts down Saint John's boardwalk patios

The patios along the boardwalk in Saint John were empty and fenced off Thursday, following an order from the fire marshal's office. (Graham Thompson/CBC - image credit)
The patios along the boardwalk in Saint John were empty and fenced off Thursday, following an order from the fire marshal's office. (Graham Thompson/CBC - image credit)

Less than a week after boardwalk patios reopened in Saint John, the New Brunswick government has ordered them shut, a move that has upset the city and Market Square business.

The order Thursday from the Fire Marshal's Office was effective immediately for the Market Square patios, which had been closed for three years because of work being done on the boardwalk.

In a statement, the city said it "takes issue" with the order.

Coun. David Hickey, whose ward includes the boardwalk, said in an interview that the fire suppression system on the patios hadn't been engaged yet.

"But there was a backup plan, which was provided by the city and authorized by a municipal fire official, which was having security on site 24/7, monitoring," Hickey said.

Despite the program's success, there is one significant gap, according to Coun. David Hickey.
Despite the program's success, there is one significant gap, according to Coun. David Hickey.

Coun. David Hickey said the city fire marshal had approved 24/7 security on site while the fire suppression system was installed as a way to allow the patio to open. (Lane Harrison/CBC)

The city's statement said that just before it reopened, the boardwalk had a "thorough inspection" by both the Saint John Fire Department, on behalf of the fire marshal, and the city's building inspection office.

"The City takes public safety seriously and has maintained a dedicated fire watch in the space as planned, while remaining work on the exterior fire suppression and alarm system takes place this week."

The city said mitigation measures were in place, and "the City is greatly disappointed by the decision to close the patios and the impact this will have on the restaurants and our community."

A city spokesperson spokesperson declined an interview request and directed questions to the Fire Marshal's Office.

CBC News requested an interview with the fire marshal, but was instead sent an email by Alan Dearing, a spokesperson for the Public Safety Department.

The statement suggested the office is committed to working with the city to reach a safe resolution quickly.

Patios did not have official signoff

If a building falls outside code requirements, an alternative solution can be proposed, the statement said. The fire marshal "approved an alternative solution for this project in the spring of 2024," but the statement did not specify what the solution was.

"The construction is not complete, and the project does not yet have signoff from the proponent's Fire Protection Engineer."

Dearing was unable to answer followup questions aimed at getting clarification of the statement.

A statement from the fire marshal said the project hadn't been approved yet, even though an "alternative solution" was approved this spring.
A statement from the fire marshal said the project hadn't been approved yet, even though an "alternative solution" was approved this spring.

A statement from the fire marshal said the project hadn't been approved yet, even though an "alternative solution" was approved this spring. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

CBC asked to see the fire marshal's order, but Dearing would not provide it either.

Hickey expressed disappointment over the whole "debacle."

"Obviously, there is a need for better synergy here, because this is unacceptable," he said.

"For three years we've kept these businesses eagerly waiting for this reopening, and not even a week into it, it gets shut down."

Hickey said the city has had "solid collaboration" on the issue Thursday from Public Safety Minister Kris Austin and the province. Hickey said he hoped for a fix this week.

Restaurateur disappointed by closure

"I'm completely gutted," said Jesse Vergen, owner of the Saint John Ale House.

The restaurant had just opened its patio on the boardwalk June 1 and was taken by surprise by the sudden closure.

"We had to send home about 16 staff there today because that were ready to work," Vergen said. "We have a beautiful sunny day here in Saint John and the provincial fire marshal put in an order for us to close down our enclosed structures."

He said the restaurant had 65 seats on the patio, and expects the restaurant's revenue will drop below half if patio seating is unavailable.

"It's patio season right now, so diners are choosing where to eat, if it's a nice day, to be out on the patios."

Vergen said the issue of the patio is only the latest thrown at the restaurant after several years of challenges during the pandemic.

Saint John Ale House owner Jesse Vergen said the closure came by surprise.
Saint John Ale House owner Jesse Vergen said the closure came by surprise.

Saint John Ale House owner Jesse Vergen said the closure came by surprise. (Saint John Ale House/Facebook)

He said in addition to city inspectors and fire officials being "very diligent" in their inspections of the patio before opening, the restaurant also had several fire extinguishers and fire-proof furniture on the patio.

"It's like we're in a position of overkill on safety," Vergen said.

The closure coincides with the city's Port Days, an event that attracts tourists.

"It's very disappointing, because [tourists] have been coming up and trying to get on the patio, and they've been greeted by a provincial seal saying that it's shut down."