Several businesses in rural Alberta are openly going against COVID-19 restrictions — one with in-person dining and another with a mask-optional policy.
In Mirror, Alta., just over 65 kilometres east of Red Deer, the Whistle Stop Café opened on Jan. 21.
The restaurant has been serving about 250 people each day. The owner says that he makes sure customers know that the business is breaking the rules.
“We let them know that they could be subject to fines,” said Christopher Scott, the owner of Whistle Stop Café. “And if they don’t leave, after they get a fine, they could be subject to arrest for obstruction of justice.
“And everybody just says, ‘Yeah… We’re with you.'”
Scott says that he intends to continue to serve customers despite the current health measures that have closed in-person services at all restaurants, pubs, bars, lounges and cafes in Alberta. Only takeout, curbside pickup and delivery are allowed.
“Let’s talk about the repercussions of not opening,” he said Monday. “So a business like mine, if I didn’t open, there’s a good chance that we would go under in less than a month.”
Calgary lawyer Claudius Du Plooy, who represents the Alberta Hospitality Association, said that he believes businesses don’t want to deliberately break the law but are feeling backed into a corner.
“They certainly understand that the regulations are there for public health,” Du Plooy said. “However, it appears that the voices we are hearing loud and clear from the industry, is essentially that it’s been the perfect storm for the restaurants.
“They are often times in such a point of desperation at this point that they are left with no option but to (defy orders).”
He added he’s heard concerns over the lack of evidence of COVID-19 spread in Alberta restaurants.
“The Alberta Hospitality Association has been reaching out to the Alberta government, and there appears to be no data,” Du Plooy said. “For example, did restaurants contribute to the spread of COVID-(-19)? And that’s one of the main points they’ve been asking for, and they don’t have the data.”
Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Monday that there is information that suggests one of the province’s 20 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 variant first identified in the United Kingdom may have been the result of community transmission
Shandro said that the new variants are part of the reason the province is planning to keep cautious when it comes to reopening.
“We need to continue to proceed cautiously, recognizing that our health system is still under significant strain,” Shandro said. “If we’re not careful, our health-care system could be in a dire situation within weeks, and it would be very difficult to get things under control.”
In Tofield, Alta., just under 70 kilometres east of Edmonton, the Countryside Service gas station doesn’t require customers to wear masks.
“We’re unwilling to follow their policy,” said Countryside Service owner Hemla Wilson.
“I figure under common law, it should be up to the people.”
Alberta Health Services said it issued an executive order to the business. The order, dated Jan. 7, said that the business had several violations: no proper COVID-19 signage, not wearing masks or face coverings during the reinspection and no confirmation if COVID-19 mitigation measures were in place.
The business was fined $1,200, but Wilson says she won’t be paying it.
“I got fined, and as for deterring me, I refuse to pay it,” she said. “This is under a policy, and I have no contract with Alberta Health Services or the government.”
Whistle Stop Café was also issued an AHS executive order on Jan. 22, ordering that business to “immediately close” its dine-in service. But Scott says they’ll stay open.
AHS says that it’s only when significant risk is identified or continued non-compliance is noted that they will resort to enforcement action.
For both businesses, they say the community has shown support for their decisions to open.
“The community here loves it. The people here love it. They love that I am doing this. We are doing this,” Wilson said.