The marketplace is quiet. Outside, chairs sit, unused. Under the canopy, there are no children taking their first tentative strides on skates. The only sounds are the wind and the scrape of a shovel clearing a path few will tread.
It’s Nov. 12, a Thursday morning, and the first day of code red at The Forks, and it’s empty.
Before COVID-19, it hadn’t been that way for millennia. The earliest evidence of human activity is a 6,000-year-old hearth, filled with catfish bones and stone tool flakes, discovered during an architectural assessment for the market’s construction. Recently, archeologists uncovered evidence of a massive treaty conference on the site in the 1200s.
"We’re the meeting place, and right now, we can’t be that," said Clare MacKay, the site’s vice-president of strategic initiatives and the executive director of the Forks Foundation. For the second time in eight months, the site is in lockdown mode.
This winter will be unlike any other for the site: during a normal calendar year, there are roughly 275 events, many of which are winter themed, says MacKay.
But this is no normal calendar year: there will be no New Year’s Eve celebration with thousands of guests, or curling bonspiels, or ice-instrument concert with guests in attendance, such as last year’s Royal Canoe Glacial show. The outdoor Oodena Celebration Circle, often used for cultural events and gatherings, is also devoid of any crowds.
MacKay says the site, like others in the province, has been operating under shifting pandemic restrictions since March. It hasn’t been an easy year, and there’s little sign winter will be different.
Inside the market, tenants are now mostly back to the curbside-pickup model that got them through the spring. The holiday season is usually one of the busiest times for the shops, reliant on heavy foot traffic that won’t be coming this year. (Ellement Wine + Spirits and the Tall Grass Prairie bakery are operating as essential services.)
"This doesn’t feel much different than it did during the first lockdown," said Brad Hewlett, the owner of the Forks Trading Company, who’s worked at the site in various capacities since 1989.
"We’ve decorated the store with a candy cane theme, and it looks stellar, but nobody is really able to see it," he laughs.
"It’s very surreal to have the market completely empty," he said. Much of the furniture has been piled up and cordoned off in the market’s Centre Court, he said. "It’s kind of like a ghost town."
For Hewlett’s shop, the first lockdown gave an impetus to prepare for a strange future, and the possibility of the second shutdown now underway. The trading company revamped its website, and since code red began about 20-35 new orders are made daily. Still, the shops at the market are reliant on "thick, shoulder-to-shoulder traffic" and right now, the roads are clear.
During the summer, traffic was predictably down and changed too, MacKay said. The door count since March has dropped by sightly more than one million visitors as compared to the same period in 2019. (It’s an imperfect measure, because some guests could open the door multiple times and others not at all.)
Even so, at the same time, bike traffic to the Market is up nearly 25 per cent, and people continue to use the trails for walking and cycling.
Also, improvements to the outdoor public areas at The Forks enhanced the site this summer, MacKay said. Additional seating doubled the capacity for outdoor guests, though table capacity limits were enforced. Greenery was added, as were lighting, shade structures, and fire pits. New public art was unveiled, too.
The groundwork for those changes predated the pandemic, but COVID-19 has certainly shown the value of investment in outdoor common areas and greenspace.
"What I’m always proud of is that (the public area) is open and accessible regardless of purchase," she said. "This is a public place first, and that was fantastic this summer."
But for now, it’s unclear when the public will be able to take advantage of the site, and when they’ll be able to meet there again, though MacKay said The Forks is doing everything it can to ensure it’s here for the future.
The Forks brass is planning various scenarios for everything this winter, including the possibility of the skating trail on the river opening. Last year, the weather didn’t cooperate.
Forks CEO Paul Jordan seemed optimistic. "Looking good," he tweeted this week with a picture of the frigid water. "Hopefully we will be skating on it in six weeks."
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.