A growing number of Alberta restaurants opened for dine-in customers this week in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions, prompting renewed warnings from public health officials about the ongoing risks posed by the virus.
And as dining rooms open, patrons across the province, including some politicians, have been flouting the rules, risking steep fines in an attempt to lobby against the current guidelines.
Lakeland Grill in Bonnyville temporarily opened its dining room on Wednesday, in a bid to pressure the provincial government to lift the current ban on dine-in service.
Co-owner Nora Kamaleddine said the industry is desperate for relief and clear communication from the government.
“People are about to lose everything,” she said in an interview Thursday.
“They all keep saying to us, ‘Give us a little bit more time, a little more time.’ That doesn’t work for us as an industry.”
“What we need is some light at the end of the tunnel, even if they give us a 15 per cent capacity like everybody else.
“I don’t see why, if we’re following all protocols and everything, why can’t they give us the same advantage as everybody else? Why are we still shut down?”
Local politicians joined the dine-in protest
Kamaleddine said her business is on the brink of closing and she is losing sleep.
“We’re at the end,” she said.
Among the diners taking a seat in the restaurant during the two-hour event were Bonnyville Mayor Gene Sobolewski, Lac La Biche Mayor County Omer Moghrabi, and Greg Sawchuk, reeve of the M.D. of Bonnyville.
Sobolewski said he was willing to risk a fine if it helped send the message that health regulations have unfairly penalized restaurants.
“My council wasn’t comfortable with myself attending as the mayor, but it was very important that I attend,” he said Thursday.
“On one hand, I was setting a bad example, but on the other hand, I’m raising awareness to the plight of these landowners and restaurant owners to the fact that the system has not been set up fairly.
“There’s a seemingly convenient targeting of the restaurants as an industry … whereas retail is pretty much open season.”
Moghrabi acknowledged that he shared a table with people from outside his cohort and did not wear masks while eating, but said he felt health protocols were being followed.
“We’ve suffered an economic slump,” he said. “We have people that have lost their homes, lost their jobs. Our small businesses have all been shut down.
“And if you look at the transmission of COVID, it is with large groups that are gathering — nightclubs, people not following protocols — so all we’re doing is sending a message.”
Serving dine-in customers has been prohibited since early December when the province heralded in a series of public health restrictions intended to slow the surge in COVID-19 cases.
Those who violate a public health order can be subject to a $1,000 penalty or prosecuted for up to $100,000 for a first offence. Police and bylaw officers are assisting with enforcement but provincial health inspectors are taking the lead.
Lakeland Grill is not alone in its decision to flout the rules. A growing number of small businesses across the province are doing the same.
Restaurants and bars in Mossleigh, Okotoks and Red Deer have also opened their doors to diners.
Christopher Scott, owner of Whistle Stop Cafe in Mirror is among them. He opened his restaurant to dine-in customers last week.
He was at Hockey Central Sports Lounge in Sylvan Lake when it opened its dining room to customers on Wednesday.
The opening was attended by several small business owners fed up with the current restrictions who gathered to discuss their frustrations, he said.
Many of his counterparts gathered around the table on Wednesday were seeking advice on the potential consequences of protesting the rules, he said.
“There were a lot of business owners there,” he said. “And they came here specifically to connect with other business owners that had opened to find out, you know, how it’s been. You know, what are the consequences? How is the government responding?”
Photos of the event show a crowded dining room with as many as 10 customers per table. Patrons wandered the room unmasked. As of Thursday morning, a closure order was posted to the door of the restaurant and calls to the business went unanswered.
Scott said there is a growing sense of desperation in the industry. Many like him are at risk of losing their businesses altogether, he said.
Whistle Stop Cafe was issued a closure order on Jan. 22 but has seen a steady stream of customers since.
Scott has been issued a court summons. Nonetheless, on Thursday morning he remained busy in the diner serving hot coffee, scrambled eggs and a warning to each new customer that they were risking a $1,000 fine by taking a seat.
The enforcement order papers were pinned prominently to a wall by the door, and police visit his restaurant daily to write down licence plate numbers of vehicles in the parking lot, he said.
Scott remains undeterred. For him, serving diners is about more than saving his business. He believes the issue is one of civil rights and argues that the current restrictions are causing irreparable damage to the economy and to mental health.
“We didn’t go into business to just sit on our hands and watch everything turn to dust in front of us,” he said.
“To every other business, it’s a do and die for them as well.
“When two weeks turns into four, turns into six and then there’s no end in sight, at that point, it’s no longer a measure that’s helping Albertans. That’s a measure that’s destroying things.”
Alberta Health Services said it is aware of ongoing violations but officers are focused on public education over legal action.
“AHS always seeks to work collaboratively with businesses and organizations to ensure compliance,” spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in a statement to CBC News on Thursday.
“It is only when significant risk is identified or continued non-compliance is noted that AHS resorts to enforcement action. Continued non-compliance can result in closure orders or tickets issued by the police.”
During a news conference Wednesday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, expressed sympathy for the business owners who are struggling as a result of the restrictions but called on them to consider the wider impact of what they are doing.
“These actions could potentially put at risk the sacrifices that we’ve made and the progress that we’ve made over the past couple of months,” she said.
“Decisions that are being taken to open in contravention of the orders are not in the best interests of our communities.”
Hinshaw said officials tasked with enforcing public health orders will be speaking with those individuals to remind them why they need to stick to the health measures and of the penalties for ignoring those orders.