Cars lined the parking lot of a central Alberta restaurant this weekend, which opened for dine-in service, defying an Alberta Health Services closure order issued to the business on Friday.
The Whistle Stop Cafe in Mirror, about 70 kilometres northeast of Red Deer, operates a restaurant, convenience store, gas station and campground. The diner was also operating as a drive-in theatre during the pandemic, until it was shut down by Alberta Health Services in April.
Owner Christopher Scott said the public health measures intended to curb the spread of COVID-19 have gone on too long. He said health officials have mismanaged the health crisis and small businesses have suffered the consequences.
Watching his bank account shrink was the final straw, he said. He is nearly broke and his family business was at risk of folding.
“Go ahead and fine me,” Scott told CBC News on Sunday. “You’ve destroyed my business already, my whole savings is gone — it’s in this business — so fine me. You can’t get blood from a stone.”
Scott has been warned that the next round of enforcement will mean additional closure orders, fines and orders to appear in court. But he is not deterred.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “There comes a point when we can no longer sit back say we’re going to follow these rules blindly.”
Scott is not alone in defiance of the public health restrictions.
Businesses across the province including hair salons, tattoo parlours and restaurants, have contravened the health orders, risking enforcement orders and steep fines.
As of Sunday, the Whistle Stop had not been issued any fines but Alberta public health officials said they are continuing to monitor the business, with assistance from Bashaw RCMP.
Last week, personal and wellness services were allowed to reopen by appointment as public health restrictions introduced in November were extended for most Alberta businesses. Restaurants remain limited to takeout, delivery or curbside pickup only.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said last week that frontline health-care remains strained by the pandemic and no additional measures will be eased while hospitalization numbers remain high.
Businesses that contravene the restrictions are subject to fines of $1,000 per ticketed offence and up to $100,000 through the courts.
RCMP Cpl. Teri-Ann Bakker said enforcement is a last resort.
“The RCMP’s focus remains on education and collaborating with members of the public who may not be following public health measures set out by public health authorities,” she said.
Scott said he has received an outpouring of support from across Alberta, including donations and a pledge to cover the business’s legal costs if they are fined.
He said customers are “flocking” to the diner from across the province.
“We’re operating at 50 per cent capacity right now and we’re full from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m., all day,” he said.
“We’re going to keep going, we’re going to make this place bigger.”
Brittany Filion, who dined at the Whistle Stop on Sunday, said the risk of a fine was worth it to support a struggling local business.
She said the restaurant was maintaining distance between customers and she felt safe enjoying the meal there.
“They’re following all the regulations, except for keeping businesses closed,” Filion said from the diner’s parking lot on Sunday.
“They’re trying to make a living and we support that.”